A note from Carrie: Parenting issues can quickly become a hot topic. It has become so common to jump on one “bandwagon” or another and frown on anyone who chose a different way. I have never felt this divide as much as I have since becoming a pediatric sleep consultant! My goal in this article is not to change your mind, but to simply clarify a few things and empower you to make the best parenting decision for YOUR family.
As parents, we bear an enormous responsibility. We are not just responsible for keeping our little ones alive, warm, fed and happy (although that’s a good place to start!). I think it’s a bit deeper for all of us. We’re looking to raise exceptional human beings who will grow up to make the world a better place. As we consider this great responsibility, it is no surprise that we take parenting decisions and styles very seriously.
Attachment parenting is a parenting philosophy that was popularized by Doctors 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.
I’ll admit that I find the idea of attachment parenting more than a little interesting, and I can see why it appeals to a lot of parents! After all, most of us want to love our kids unreservedly from day one. Our instincts are all about holding baby close, meeting their needs in each moment, and protecting them with the strength and determination that only a parent truly understands.
In theory, this 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 every parenting theory has been debated endlessly, but there’s no strong evidence to show that attachment parenting is better or worse than other parenting styles. I believe wholeheartedly that each family is unique and I support families in finding the right parenting style to fit their family’s needs.
Today I want to talk with you specifically about attachment parenting and sleep training and whether they are mutually exclusive.
In order to dig in, we need to look closely at the attachment parenting theory. Dr. Sears lists the principles of attachment parenting that he refers to as “The Seven B’s.” They are, in no particular order...
Bedding Close to Baby
Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby’s Cry
Beware of Baby Trainers
The first three have nothing to do with sleep training. You can bond with your baby as much as you want, breastfeed to your heart’s content, and wear your baby in a carrier everywhere you go, and as a sleep coach, I would tell you that is 100% ok!
The three that follow are the ones that tend to give attachment parenting advocates pause when they think about sleep training.
Sleeping close to baby is another term for bed sharing, which Dr. Sears is a big fan of. It’s a common myth about pediatric sleep coaches that we’re firmly against bed sharing. I have actually heard many parents say they get better sleep when they bed share with their little ones, and that’s great! If your family is sleeping in the same bed and you’re all sleeping well, keep doing what you are doing. I would never advocate for you to stop!
Other families find that they all sleep better when baby has their own space to sleep. They find that the movement, frequent wake ups and simply more people in the bed make it difficult to get restorative sleep.
So the choice here is really dependent on what works for YOUR family.
When it comes to sleep training, is bed sharing a deal breaker? Simply put, yes it is. Sleep training means teaching your baby to sleep independently and this becomes pretty much impossible when baby is within arms’ reach of mom.
So if bed sharing has stopped working for your family and you are ready for your baby to have his or her own sleep space, then sleep training is a viable option for you.
Now let’s talk about crying.
Crying is how babies express discontentment, no question about it. Whether it’s a wet diaper, general discomfort, or just wanting something that they don’t have at that particular moment, babies cry to express that they want something.
If you noticed, I specifically avoided saying that they cry to express a “need” because, truth be told, not everything a baby cries over is a need. My son is 8 months old and we are beginning to see the behaviors of separation anxiety. I can leave my baby with my husband and walk out of the room and he instantly cries. He doesn't need me to be in the same room as him 100% of the time, but that's certainly want he wants! (If you are looking for a little comic relief, take a look at these hilarious examples of kids crying for nonsensical reasons.)
As far as sleep training and crying, I tell every one of my clients, your baby is going to protest these changes to their sleep habits and there WILL be crying. But, many of my clients are surprised when I tell them that sleep training does NOT require them to leave their baby to cry until they fall asleep. In fact, I typically don’t recommend waiting longer than about 10 minutes before responding to a crying baby. I even give my parent’s the choice of being in the room with their baby as they learn to sleep independently.
When your baby wakes at night, I do suggest giving them a few minutes to see if they can fall back to sleep on their own, but I customize the specifics around that within each sleep plan I write to fit the comfort level of the family.
The idea that sleep training requires parents to close the door at bedtime and leave their little ones until the next morning is not at all accurate. (If you are looking for more information on sleep training and crying, reach out, I’d love to dive into it more with you!)
So we’ve managed to get to the last two of the seven B's without any real conflict, but this next one is going to be tough to navigate.
“Beware of baby trainers.”
Honestly, 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 pediatric sleep coaches in the world, and we all have one thing in common.
We’re passionate about helping families.
We’ve been there ourselves, we’ve found a solution and we’re devoted to helping others in the same way. We know the difference it made in our lives and we want to guide others in finding that same relief, it’s why we got into this profession!
I work with people in their some of their lowest, most desperate (and sleep deprived) times of life. It can be challenging at times but my philosophy is anchored in grace and encouragement. You will never hear me judge any of the decisions you’ve made to this point. My ultimate goal is to help restore families through restful nights of sleep.
So I’ll leave that one in your hands – if you want to beware of me, that is entirely up to you!
The last of Dr. Sears’ rules is Balance.
“Wear your baby everywhere, breastfeed on demand, respond immediately to every whimper, sleep next to them, and remember to take some time for yourself, because it’s all about balance.”
I agree that balancing parenting and your own self-care is incredibly important. But I am convinced that to be the best mom you can be, you need to get regular, sufficient rest.
Motherhood is a treasured privilege as well as an incredibly demanding job. You have to be patient, understanding, energized, empathetic, entertaining, and focused to be a good parent. How many of those qualities do you possess on a few hours of sleep?
So I agree with the theory of balance, but healthy balance looks a bit different in my life than Dr. Sears describes.
So what does this all boil down to? It’s like Jill Churchill so accurate stated:
“There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”
If you are looking for the answer on what is right for you, you are the only one who can figure that out. We are all unique and will all parent in a different way. If you are 100% on board with attachment parenting, wonderful! The best parenting strategy is the one that works for YOUR family.
But if you are finding that there are some aspects of Dr. Sears’ theory that are not working out so well for your family, I encourage you to re-evaluate.
Take some time to look at your goals and discern the best way to reach them.