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You CAN sleep train without disrupting secure parent-child attachment

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

I’ve spoken to lots of mothers who are reluctant to try sleep training for the following reasons. One, they feel it undermines a close infant-mother bond being formed. Two, they cite attachment theory studies that show children are more likely to have:

  • A greater sense of self agency

  • Better emotional regulation

  • Higher self-esteem

  • Better coping under stress

  • Closer and more trusting and positive relationships with friends, family and romantic partners throughout their lives

if they are securely attached to their caregivers from a young age. Because sleep training entails leaving a baby to cry himself to sleep, these parents think under responsiveness to their baby’s cries gives him a cause not to be confident in their caregiving. The result they believe is that baby could become less “mentally healthy”.

To parents with such thoughts, I will leave you with 5 points to mull over in the hope that you’ll change mind on sleep training- at least the type of sleep training that I advocate for.

Even if it doesn’t, then at least you have a better idea of what’s mission critical for a secure attachment, and what isn’t.

  1. It’s the whole relationship that matters, and not just the circumstances around sleep. Secure attachment is a generalized trust a baby has that a caregiver will respond and meet his needs. This trust is informed by hundreds of daily interactions between parent and child. It is important to realize sleep and sleep training represent just one of these vast number of interactions. And although it is often one of the most emotionally charged encounters for a caregiver, sleep is often just another experience in the life of an infant, not necessarily holding any more weight beyond the other daily sources of distress, like being hungry, being uncomfortable, etc.

  2. A caregiver doesn’t have to be 100% attuned to the baby all the time; studies show within a secure attachment, parents are only attuned to the baby about 30% of the time. Provided effort is made to repair any mismatches between the parent and child, secure attachments will continue to form. So, if you have concerns about sleep training rupturing things, I say just make up for it with high quality caregiving in the course of the day.

  3. You can parent for a secure attachment, even whilst sleep training. There are 3 ways to achieve this: (a) DO be responsive to baby’s basic needs. So, if he cries, check he doesn’t have a legitimate need— i.e., he’s not hungry, thirsty, or soiled. If none of these are the issue, then the complaints are likely his resistance to having his sleep habits changed. After all, even as adults, we cling on to our habits. (b) DO provide your child emotional support and comfort during this new challenge. We are not closing the door only to open it when morning breaks. Just as you would encourage your child learning to ride a bike, you can and should do the same as he acquires independent sleep skills. Too often, parents seek to lower baby’s distress by eliminating the cause. This might be effective, but in sleep training, it just means giving baby back all of his sleep props. Given that stress is a necessary part of life, I say it would do our babies better to teach them to cope with manageable threats to their physical and social well-being, by providing parental support. Doing so is crucial for their development of resilience. (c) DO channel calm throughout the process. The same goes for any other interaction with your baby that does not involve sleep. A baby’s emotional regulation begins with the caregiver. If a caregiver is stressed or anxious, this can affect the baby’s emotional baseline. Remarkably, even the youngest of babies can pick up on the smallest body language and energy of the room, so support a positive emotional state by projecting the calm you want in baby.

  4. Don’t confuse ‘tight’ (together all the time) connection with a secure attachment. To all the parents who may be attracted to the attachment parenting philosophy championed by Dr. William Sears and his wife, take note. Whilst the practices of attachment parenting such as breastfeeding, birth-bonding etc, have their benefits and are all fine things, there is no evidence to show that they are predictive of a secure attachment, says developmental psychologist Alan Sroufe in this article here. So, to all the AP practicing parents: if you started this practice to secure a connection with your child, but it is wearing you down, give yourself permission to stop. If it is not good for you, it certainly won’t be good for baby.

  5. Numerous studies have shown that sleep training does not have adverse effects on infant-parent attachment. In my view this evidence should debunk the fears mothers have fearing the bond may be irreparably broken through sleep training. The studies also show that: (a) With sleep training, maternal stress and maternal mood have been shown to improve; (b) Baby’s sleep in terms of total hours of sleep, and number of awakenings also improves through sleep training measures. The upshot is a well-rested baby and mummy, who are primed for optimum connection and enjoyment of each other’s company. Both are necessary pre-conditions to the forging of secure attachments.

I hope these thoughts better inform you in reaching your own conclusions on whether sleep training is for you and your baby. If not, do feel free to reach out today to one of our sleep consultants to discuss your reservations.

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