Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Short answer: YES! Sleep is a very basic need that all human beings have, and teaching your baby to sleep in a supportive way is a perfectly reasonable thing that many parents all over the world do, without damaging their secure attachment with their child. Sleep training and secure attachment actually go hand in hand when done in a developmentally appropriate way.
In fact, anything we teach our children or help them through when they're struggling (sleep struggles included) - when done in a loving and supportive way - can strengthen their attachment with us!
If you want to get science-y with me, keep reading.
We all must have our basic needs met in order to survive. Air to breathe. Water to drink. Nutritive needs. Psychological needs. Sleep needs. These are the basics.
As parents, it is our job to distinguish how to best meet all of these needs for our children. Today I want to focus on two of these needs - specifically sleep and a secure attachment with a primary caregiver.
There are four categories of attachment - secure, anxious-avoidant, anxious-ambivalent, and disorganized. As parents, we want to work towards developing a secure attachment with our children. You can read more about the four categories of attachment here, in a parenthood article from healthline.com. Also, check out episode 16 of the Coffee & Catnaps Parenting Podcast for my interview with Jennifer Van Rossum, MA, LPC, for our discussion all about attachment (recorded in April 2021).
First, let's discuss what defines a secure attachment between a child and a caregiver. A secure attachment is one that allows the child to feel safe, protected, and, you guessed it, secure! Relationships we have as children will affect future relationships we have in adulthood.
Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson, & Collins (2005) completed a 30-year longitudinal study of the developing person. In the study, the history of attachment was shown to be "clearly related to the growth of self-reliance, the capacity for emotional regulation, and the emergence and course of social competence, among other things."
To sum all that up, working to form a secure attachment is extremely important in helping your child grow and develop into a confident, emotionally intelligent adult who can one day be a positive and contributing member of society.
That's a big responsibility! How do we do this?
To form a secure attachment with our children, we want to make sure we are responsive, available, sensitive, and accepting of them, no matter their state.
By providing support as our children learn how to do things that are difficult - breastfeeding, walking, reading, riding a bike, problem-solving, etc. - we are helping them process new skills and new feelings together. Over time, our children will have the confidence in themselves to try new things and persist when things are difficult for them because of the supportive process they've gone through, and because of the process that's been modeled for them when they were young. By providing this support and responsiveness throughout childhood, they learn that no matter what, we are a safe place for them to come back to, regardless of the difficulties they are enduring. They learn that we are there for them when they need us, unconditionally.
I believe part of building a secure attachment also comes in the form of providing safe boundaries for our children. They, as toddlers and young children, learn what's acceptable and what's not by testing the boundaries we provide for them. What will mom allow me to do, and what won't she? Can I touch the outlet? What will she do if I run away from her in the store parking lot? What will dad do if I throw this car? They won't learn your response unless they try. By providing these boundaries and holding to them, you are keeping them safe and teaching what is acceptable and what is not. One might use behavioral modifications and interventions to teach and reinforce positive or negative behaviors.
This includes boundaries around sleep too! And these boundaries look different at different ages and developmental stages.
In a five-year follow-up of a study done on the harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep interventions (also known as sleep training) Anna M.H. Price, Wake, Ukoumonne, and Hiscock concluded that "behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative). Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques to reduce the short- to medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression."
So, will sleep training affect your secure attachment with your child?? NO!
Sleep training techniques are short-term behavioral interventions that can help a child learn the skill of independent sleep. There are multiple methods you can use, ranging from "Cry-It-Out" to "No-Cry Solutions" - and a family might choose any of these or none of them. Paired with an age-appropriate schedule and other sleep-supportive routines and behaviors, your child can sleep 10-12 hours at night and take age-appropriate naps during the day.
I'd even be one to argue that with a middle-of-the-line sleep training method (these are the ones I use and recommend with my clients), you can actually strengthen your child's secure attachment because you are able to support them through a learning process that can be difficult at first, simply because it is new and different. I've also seen it with my own children and my client's children. My boys (currently ages 2.5 years and 13 months old) both were sleep trained between 5-6 months of age using a timed interval method, age-appropriate schedules, and sleep-supportive daily routines. They both currently recognize me as the default parent and their primary source for comfort. It's also important to note that their attachment with me will likely help construct the relationships they have with others throughout their lives.
They also demonstrate security in our relationship and trust other adults whom I show that I trust. My little one will fuss for a bit if I leave, but he's fine shortly thereafter with another caregiver, as he knows I will come back. He will cling to me if he's feeling unsure about something. They know that if they call for me, I will respond. When they're struggling with something, I teach them that I can help them. We identify big feelings and work through them together.
(If your child is experiencing big feelings during their bedtime routine, download our free Bedtime Guide).
Another HUGE benefit for me was that, once my children were sleeping well and I was able to sleep well again, I am a much better and more responsive parent when they really need me during the day. Lord knows I'm just trying to keep up with them and keep them alive right now during these crazy-busy toddler years! I need to be on my A-game.
I still am the one they run to when they are hurt, scared, or want a snuggle. And they long to go to bed when it's time. They sleep well and then we play hard and love a lot. I wouldn't do this parenting thing any other way.
Leave your questions in the comments below!