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Does Sleep Coaching Ruin My Attachment Relationship With My Child?

Updated: Jun 26

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MAMAS!


I am so excited to write this blog. This is an area that I am so incredibly passionate about. Although, behind that passion can live some fury. Fury of what the fear mongering, social media intimidators tell parents they need to do to have a healthy "secure" attachment with their children. Unrealistic expectations that NO ONE is able to meet (and that is science- no one can be perfectly attuned to their child 100% of the time). So let's root your fears in reality, with some science to back it up!


First off, let's differentiate the terms "attachment theory" from "attachment parenting".


Attachment theory and attachment parenting are somewhat related concepts; however, differ significantly in their origins, principles and applications.


Attachment theory is a SCIENTIFIC FRAMEWORK (research-based) that began with the infamous John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 70s. The research looks at the psychological and emotional bonds between children and their primary caregivers (notice that this can be plural- children have several attachment relationships). Attachment theory suggests that there are different attachment styles (secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, disorganized) based on how caregivers respond to a child's needs and the relationship that they build together.


On the other hand, attachment parenting is a PHILOSOPHY (not research based) that was popularized by Dr. William Sears in the 90s. It encourages a parenting approach that emphasizes physical closeness and responsiveness to build trust and emotional security.


How Attachment Theory Has Been Skewed.


The reason I am taking the time to differentiate the two is because it is easy to consider the information that comes with one to represent the other (people think information is research based, although it often comes from a theory). For example, Dr. Sears has made the caution in his writings that infants who cry excessively—even those left to cry for brief periods at night while learning to sleep—might experience lasting brain damage, which could result in lower IQ, behavioral issues, and other problems. However, when you look at the research being cited (Check out the website) the research is done in a context that is significantly different than the context of most family homes. Much of the research is done with severely abused or neglected children or rats that are being zapped while measuring their cortisol levels. This does not align with the standard, 'good enough' parenting that we, as sleep consultants, work with day to day.


Research has been extrapolated time and time again to see tiny fragments of findings, although fails to show the background information that worked together to create these findings! This can be really confusing for a parent who is working hard to find information that will work for their family and internalizing their struggle when they can't perfectly achieve these standards.


Don't get me wrong! I think that there are certainly some fantastic ideas behind Sears' work; I encourage all parents to strive for closeness and responsiveness and bonding opportunities! However, I don't believe in using fear as a way to get parents to follow certain ideas as we all don't fit perfectly in the box that he has created. It certainly does not consider the parents' whose mental health is being impacted by these pressures and expectations of complete responsiveness, in turn, affecting their ability to delight in their child and enjoy parenthood (which is ACTUALLY one of the most important factors of secure attachment). This expectation only lends to feelings of guilt and shame when they feel that they cannot achieve these ideals or feel as though their ability to parent is lower than the rest of the parents preaching these things.


Bottomline to this thought, there is no such thing as perfect parenting. Imperfect, 'good enough', parenting has been (research) proven to lead to secure attachment. Dr. Donald Winnicott, a British paediatrician and psychoanalyst, cites that you need to "get it right" about 30% of the time to foster a secure attachment. (A good read for more information).



How does attachment theory suggest we can achieve secure attachment?


Secure attachment develops through consistent, responsive, and nurturing caregiving. Here are some key factors that contribute to the development of secure attachment (Bowlby & Ainsworth):


  1. Consistent Caregiving: The caregiver is reliably present and responds appropriately to the child’s needs. Caregiver works to provide a safe and stable environment.

  2. Emotional Availability: The caregiver is emotionally attuned to the child's feelings and needs, providing comfort and support. This also means that, as a caregiver, you do your best to be emotionally available and present.

  3. Positive Interaction: Regular positive interactions, such as play, affectionate touch, and verbal communication, reinforce the bond. Delighting in your child is a big part of building this healthy relationship.

  4. Sensitive Responsiveness: The caregiver recognizes and responds to the child's signals, helping the child feel understood and valued.

  5. Warmth and Boundaries: As the parent you are able to identify the needs of your child, support them with meeting these needs, and set appropriate boundaries (although warmly)!

Now...


This is IMPORTANT MAMAS. Not one decision determines attachment. And there is not just one attachment relationship in a child's life!


Does your child feel understood? Feel safe? Feel loved? Secure attachment is not necessarily about constant physical presence and responding to every need perfectly; however, when supporting your child through difficult times we aim to make our children feel understood, safe, and loved.


As parents, we have MANY small moments in our everyday life that work together to build this relationship. We give our children food, we play with them, we show our delight in them throughout the day. We encourage them when things are hard (let's think about how we respond to our baby crying in the car seat because they don't like it, or when we are doing tummy time!). We are there to support them, announce that we are there, acknowledge that it is hard AND tell them that they are safe. We put them to sleep when we see they are tired. We dress them in weather-appropriate attire. We learn so that we can respond the best that we can with the resources that we have (internal and external).


This is the same with sleep coaching.


How will sleep coaching affect my attachment relationship with my child?


I speak with many parents by phone or in person to explore their sleep goals, parenting philosophy, and what is really going on for them in their parenting world. In my work, I think that maternal wellness is SO important.


So often, moms express feelings of guilt or shame with the way that they respond to their child in the night when they are sleep deprived. (People don't often come see me if their current sleep situation is ideal for their family....Most of the time families are expressing significant stress). Let's consider how these feelings may spiral in a mother's world. How might this exhaustion impact motherhood?


Lack of sleep makes us feel vulnerable! Sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture for a reason. It can lead to a negative way of functioning, make it difficult to make safe and effective choices. Exhaustion can lead to it being difficult for parents to parent in alignment with their parenting values and philosophies, being able to delight in their children, having the energy to play and be fully present (boy! Do I remember daydreaming about sleep). Being sleep deprived can also have an effect on the way that we respond to our children, read their cues, respond sensitively and warmly. I have seen it have impacts on the marital relationships, friendships, other children in the home.


When I say that Tired Mama Consulting emphasizes the parent-child relationship, what I mean is that I want us to work together to take into account how the lack of sleep is impacting your parenting, family, your relationships, your mental and physical health and work together to establish a plan that is responsive, warm, and sensitive to your child's (and your!) needs. Getting your family the sleep that you all need will enhance your parenting, your relationships, your marital partnership, your play, your attunement, your sensitivity, and all of the things that come with it. We will be there, responsive to your child's needs and cries.


Yes! There may be a temporary 'mis-attunement'. However, this is an INCREDIBLY short term misalignment that, in my opinion (and research's!), significantly negates the mis-attunement that most often comes with sleep deprivation, and will result in amazing outcomes that promotes attachment, security, and attunement that may not have been consistent during states of exhaustion. As I have indicated earlier, it is impossible to be attuned to your child 100% of the time.


For those of you who find interest in this, you might find Dr. Edward Tronick's "Still-Face Experiment"(See Here) to be something of interest to you! Dr. Tronick's work supports attachment theory and developmental psychology where he did an experiment that resulted in findings that indicate that children can develop secure attachments even when caregivers are only attuned to their needs a portion of the time, as long as they are generally responsive and repair any disruptions with the interaction.


I use this research not as a way of 'setting the bar' for your family, but to build an understanding of the misconception that we need to be PERFECT parents, responding perfectly 100% of the time, to achieve this gold-standard relationship.


Current Research on Attachment

I took the opportunity to reach out to Dr. Or Dagan to inquire about his thoughts on sleep coaching and attachment. Dr. Or Dagan is a professor at Long Island University and is apart of the Clinical Psychology Doctoral program. (Visit his website to see some of his amazing work!) who conducts attachment research. I inquired about his thoughts on 'sleep training' and 'attachment' and the following was his response:


"My answer is that sleep training, in all its variations, works. And it does because secure attachment relationships are built upon consistent but not perfect support of parents at times of need. Sensitive parents are there for children when they are in need or distress in many repeated circumstances that go way beyond the relatively few occasions when sleep training occurs.

The mind of the child (and of human beings) is probabilistic-- that means the child learns what to expect from a parent based on the majority of the parent's sensitive and contingent reactions to cues of help, which means that parents don't have to be "perfect" (but rather, as Winnicott said, "good enough"). This leaves a large margin of "error", where parents exhibit empathic failures or are simply not fully available to attend to the child's needs. That's ok. Children are resilient and can overcome these instances as long as their parents are there for them in times of need most of the times. Sleep training can thus fall under the times when parents (consciously) "fail" to support the child and still do not hamper the attachment relationship with the child.

It is also important to remember that (a) sleep training is a relatively short process, whereas attachment relationships are built over the years, and (b) sleep training leads to parents being less tired (because they themselves get to sleep better as a result of the process) and thus gaining "oxygen" to be better parents at other times." (Dr. Or Dagan)


The Pressures That Come With Motherhood


Let's be real- motherhood already comes with so much pressure and change.


Society (parents, friends, the social media world etc.,) sets such high and, sometimes unachievable, standards that will lend to us being considered a 'good parent'. We are told- you always have to be patient and calm but you can't sleep train. You should keep a tidy home, work full time, raise emotionally-intelligent (but not too emotional!) children, be constantly available and attuned to your children, stay fit and eat healthy (which means lots of you time!), expose your children to meaningful and educational activities at all times (no screen time!) while staying up to date on the latest parenting techniques and trends.


Posts are strung across social media of amazing meals, happy families, and people who look like they have it altogether. All. The. Time!


This isn't real! Of course, we always want to strive to achieve these things to the best of our ability, but it is important that we take into account the pressure and guilt that we succumb to when we don't achieve these unachievable standards of perfection.


As a human species, we have been taught to selectively attune to things we're doing wrong as a function to keep ourselves safe and to thrive. Do you find yourself doing this? Do you give yourself just as much credit for the things you do right as you do the things you do "wrong"? If you are struggling with this- please reach out to my own therapy services or services in your community. I want to support you in knowing that each individual has their own strengths, vulnerabilities and struggles. Let's build each other up rather than spread fear and judgement.


Pull yourself back to what I've mentioned above about building a healthy relationship with your children- do your best at being consistent, responsive, warm, and sensitive to their needs while also being sensitive to YOUR needs so that the family unit can be strong. When your 'bucket' is filled you can pour into your children's needs buckets. Let's follow your intuition.



All in all....


I hope that you have found this blog informative and that it has challenged your thinking to some degree. It is important to build that foundational understanding of attachment theory so that we can recognize the human-ness in the theory and release the pressure of perfection that we experience so often as mothers. Perfection is unachievable.


Imagine what we can accomplish if we go in with the mindset of continuing to achieve the best we can. Let's continue learning and growing so we can continue achieving just that!


Reach out to Tired Mama Consulting to support you and your family with getting some sleep- I am trained in both parent-led and baby-led approaches... we will explore what is best for you and your family.


Let's get some sleep!


Research or readings that may be of interest to you:


Still Face Experiment:

Tronick, E. Z., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S., & Brazelton, T. B. (1978). The infant's response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 17(1), 1-13.


Secure Attachment:

John Bowlby: Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Mary Ainsworth: Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


Good Enough Parenting:

Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press.


Attachment Parenting (Sears):

Sears, W., & Sears, M. (1993). The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2001). The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby. New York: Little, Brown and Company.


Baby Sleep & Maternal Mental Health

Bayer, J. K., Hiscock, H., Hampton, A., & Wake, M. (2007). Sleep problems in young infants and maternal mental and physical health. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 43(1–2), 66–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1754.2007.01005.x


Sleep Training & Attachment:

Price, A. M. H., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Hiscock, H. (2012). Five-Year Follow-up of Harms and Benefits of Behavioral Infant Sleep Intervention: Randomized Trial. Pediatrics, 130(4), 643–651. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-3467


Gradisar, M., Jackson, K., Spurrier, N. J., Gibson, J., Whitham, J., Williams, A. S., … & Kennaway, D. J. (2016). Behavioral interventions for infant sleep problems: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 137(6).


Mindell, J. A., Sadeh, A., Kohyama, J., & How, T. H. (2010). Parental behaviors and sleep outcomes in infants and toddlers: A cross-cultural comparison. Sleep Medicine, 11(4), 393-399.


Hiscock, H., Bayer, J. K., Hampton, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Wake, M. (2008). Long-term mother and child mental health effects of a population-based infant sleep intervention: Cluster-randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics, 122(3), e621-e627.

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