There are several parenting theories out there – but no one perfect way to be a good mother or father. What works well for one parent or family, doesn’t necessarily work well for another.
Take my best friend and I, for instance. We are both fiercely devoted mothers, dedicated to loving and nurturing our kids.
But our family sleeping arrangements couldn’t be more different. She subscribes to the attachment parenting theory and bed-shares with her children in their king-sized bed. Her husband sleeps in another room. She nursed her kids during the night for more than 3 years. It might sound slightly unorthodox, but so what? They are happy, and it works for them.
Me on the other hand? That situation would push me over the edge. I like structure, and my personal space while I sleep. And sleep is important to me and my family, as we are all a little cranky when our sleep’s been disturbed. So, our kids have a 7.30pm bedtime involving plenty of cuddles, then they fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night in their own beds. This is what works for us.
Like I said. What works for one, doesn’t always work for another.
I am not here to push any agenda, or to put down anyone’s way of parenting. I am only here to address the question which I have been asked repeatedly by subscribers to the attachment parenting theory:
Are Attachment Parenting and Sleep Training mutually exclusive?
My answer is no. Here’s why.
What is Attachment Parenting?
For anyone who’s not familiar, attachment parenting is a parenting philosophy that was popularized by Drs. William and Martha Sears in their 1993 publication, “The Baby Book.” The idea, in a nutshell, is maximum closeness and responsiveness. You wear your baby, you share a bed with your baby, you breastfeed on demand, and you answer their cries immediately. If you want more information on attachment parenting, a quick Google search will provide you with more material than you could possibly take in over a dozen lifetimes.
In theory, attachment parenting creates a strong attachment between mother and baby, which results in well-adjusted children who grow up to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society.
Now, all of these parenting theories have been debated endlessly and passionately, but there’s no strong evidence to show that attachment parenting is better or worse than other parenting styles. As a parent you are entitled to choose what makes your family happy and function well. For some it is attachment parenting, for others it is something else, or a combination of things.
Are Attachment Parenting and Sleep Training mutually exclusive?
As I said, I do not believe that they are.
Attachment parents can teach their babies to fall asleep independently in a crib, without being nursed or rocked to sleep, and to sleep for a rich and continuous stretch of 11-12 hours.
In other words, attachment parents can sleep train their babies. And they can do so without any shame or guilt.
In Dr Sears’ own words, attachment parenting is not a strict set of rules which must be followed at all cost:
“Attachment Parenting is an approach, rather than a strict set of rules.”
“Parenting is too individual and baby too complex for there to be only one way.”
“Stick with what is working and modify what is not. You will ultimately develop your own parenting style that helps parent and baby find a way to fit.”
“Attachment parenting is a tool. Notice we use the term “tools” rather than “steps.” With tools you can pick and choose which of those fit your personal parent-child relationship.”
With that in mind, let’s look at Dr Sears’ list of tools which he refers to as the “seven Bs”. Remember, Dr Sears himself says these are not rules to be followed, but simply tools which you can pick and choose from to suit what works for your family.
- Birth Bonding
- Baby Wearing
- Bedding Close to Baby
- Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby’s Cry
- Beware of Baby Trainers
So the first three tools have nothing to do with sleep training. You can bond with your baby as much as you want, breastfeed for years, and wear your baby in a sling everywhere you go, and as a paediatric sleep consultant, I would tell you that’s all fine and dandy.
The three that follow are the ones that tend to give attachment parenting advocates pause when they think about sleep training.
“Bedding close to baby”
Strange wording, I admit. But hey, he was trying to get everything to start with B, and the man is a paediatrician not a poet.
What Dr Sears means is bed-sharing or, as an alternative (for parents worried about the potential risks related to this) having baby in a crib/bassinet near the parent’s bed.
A common myth about paediatric sleep coaches is that we’re firmly against bed-sharing, and I won’t act like I don’t know where that came from. The consensus from most of my colleagues is that babies sleep better, and so do their parents, when they aren’t in the same bed as you. And this makes sense. More people in bed means more movement, more movement means more wake-ups, and more wake ups means less of that delicious, deep sleep that we love to see everybody getting.
So is bed-sharing a deal breaker when it comes to sleep training? Well, yes. It pretty much is. Teaching babies to fall asleep independently isn’t really feasible when Mum is within arm’s reach at all times.
Now, I have heard a lot of parents say they get better sleep when they bed-share with their little ones, and that’s 100% wonderful in my book. If your family is all sleeping in the same bed and you’re all sleeping well, I say keep doing what you’re doing.
However, if your definition of bed-sharing is that one parent is sleeping on the couch and one of you is sleeping in bed with baby, waking every 45 minutes to breastfeed back to sleep, that’s not what would be commonly described as “quality sleep.” If you feel like you’re sleep-deprived, cranky or go to bed each night with a feeling of dread, then something probably needs to change.
If you want to keep your little one close but not have yourself or your baby disturbed by each other’s movements, I suggest sharing a room instead of a bed. As mentioned, this is something which Dr Sears himself suggests, as an alternative to bed-sharing. As long as baby has a separate space to sleep, like a crib or a play pen, then sleep training is once again a viable option.
Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby’s Cry
Children cry for a variety of reasons. It may be a dirty diaper, wind, hunger etc.
But the reason for crying which is relevant here is where a baby who is heavily reliant on sleep props (eg being rocked, given the pacifier, nursed or fed to sleep) is learning how to fall asleep without these props. That is, where a baby is being sleep trained.
The crying here is not because she is hungry or has a dirty diaper. It is because she is protesting against a change, which is an entirely natural thing to do. After all, human beings are creatures of habit. We don’t like change, often even if it is for our own good in the long run. The same thing goes for our children.
So I cannot promise that there will be no protest when you sleep train your baby. But you will NOT need to leave your child alone to cry until she falls asleep. You can be right next to him, offering him the comfort of your presence and voice, as he learns a new skill which is going to ultimately improve the quality of his sleep in the long run (and yours). And we all know the benefits of a long and luxurious sleep, don’t we?
I do suggest giving your baby a few minutes to see if she can fall back to sleep on her own, but the
idea that sleep training requires parents to close the door at bedtime and leave their little ones until
the next morning, regardless of the intensity or duration of their crying, is bogus.
So we’ve got to the last two Bs without too much difficulty, now the next one’s gonna be a tough one.
“Beware of baby trainers.”
So let me just level with you here, okay? I can’t speak for everyone in my profession, but as a Certified Sleep Sense Consultant, I am part of the largest collaborative network of paediatric sleep coaches in the world, and we all have these in common:
(a) We’re passionate about helping families;
(b) We are mothers who have been through this issue ourselves, and know what it feels to be a desperately sleep-deprived parent;
(c) We’ve found a solution, and we’re devoted to helping others the same way we helped our own babies because we know, first hand, the difference it makes in people’s lives.
And for anyone who might be thinking, “They’re just in it for the money,” I implore you to try working with exhausted parents and overtired babies for a few nights and tell me about how easy the money is. If this job were just making a buck, we would all find something else to do, believe me.
We work with people in their most frazzled, desperate moments, and it is challenging work. The reward is in the results; the smiles of those happy babies and the relief in the eyes of the parents who are feeling reinvigorated and re-energized about raising kids now that they’re getting enough sleep.
This is about balancing your parenting responsibilities with your self-care, which is a principle I wholly agree with.
Motherhood is incredibly demanding and requires a finely-tuned well-oiled machine to do it right. To be a good parent, you have to be patient, understanding, energetic, empathetic, entertaining and focused. How many of those qualities would you say you possess on three hours of sleep?
So if by sleep training your little one, both you and your child start getting sufficient sleep, then you’ve found Balance. In this case, Balance, ironically, is achieved through sleep training.
So, there you have it. The reasons why attachment parenting and sleep training can go hand in hand.
And if you aren’t convinced that I have sufficiently addressed any of the “Bs”, remember Dr Sears himself said that these are not strict rules. In other words, being an attachment parent doesn’t mean you have to comply with all of it.
I’d like to end off with one of my favourite quotes on parenthood:
“There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”
It reminds me that we, like our babies, are unique, and all of these parenting recipes need to be tweaked and adjusted to suit our individual family’s needs.
So if attachment parenting with bed-sharing is your thing, more power to you. I would never suggest changing something which is working for you.
But if isn’t working and you’re looking for a change, then sleep training is a viable option which is open to you, even if you are an attachment parent.