Won't Sleep Training Ruin our Attachment?
When you became a parent, chances are, your life changed completely the moment you held your baby in your arms for the first time.You may have felt an intense desire to protect them from anything that could cause them harm or pain.
Maybe you thought, “I’m never going to let you out of my sight.”
It’s instinctual to protect and care for our children.
In fact, having a secure attachment to a caregiver is important for children. And sometimes, parents worry that if they sleep train, they will destroy that attachment.
They worry that if they let their child cry or leave them alone for any length of time, they will damage their child’s development and mental health.
I want to reassure you today with some facts – making changes in your child’s habits, routines, or life (even if they don’t like it) won’t damage the secure attachment they have with you.
What is parent-child attachment?
In Attachment and loss, J Bowlby describes attachment as an “aspect of the relationship between a child and caregiver that is involved with making the child safe, secure and protected.”
Feeling attached to a parent is important for a child’s upbringing, and I don’t think many would argue with the fact that feeling safe, secure, and protected is essential for young children (or even adults!).
But what does attachment mean?
Does it mean breastfeeding as long as possible?
Or spending your weekends playing outside with your kids?
These activities, while nice, don’t define attachment. Rather, they are examples of “bonding,” which is another concept altogether. Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s important that caregivers and children bond – but it’s not the same as attachment.
Cambridge University published an article that showed children develop a secure attachment when:
Their caregivers respond to them when they’re upset (like tending to them up when they are hurt), and
They know they can safely express their feelings, even if they’re negative (like crying)
So how does all of this relate to sleep training?
Many believe the misconception that in order to have a secure attachment with your child, you must respond to them immediately when they’re upset. And since many babies don’t like change, changing habits and routines can cause some protest.
If a parent were to maintain attachment, they can’t ever let their child cry, right?
Not so fast.
I want you to know that having a secure attachment with your baby CAN co-exist with sleep training. Let me show you how.
Misconceptions about attachment and
There are a few misconceptions about attachment and sleep training, so let’s go through each one together.
Before I go on, I want to remind you that if you don’t feel that sleep training is right for your family, you don’t have to do it! It’s not for everyone, but for those families who know they need to do something about their child’s sleep, it’s important that you are well-equipped with knowledge about the subject.
Misconception #1: You can’t breastfeed and sleep train your child.
Sleep training is the act of helping your child learn new skills when it comes to their sleep habits. It has nothing to do with how your baby is fed. If you have breastfeeding goals, you absolutely can still maintain that relationship and still adjust your child’s schedule or sleep habits.
Of course, in some cases, when children learn better sleep skills, they will start sleeping through the night. When this happens, breastfeeding moms will have to decide whether they want to maintain feeds overnight and wake their baby OR if they want to pump overnight to maintain their supply.
Working with your lactation consultant can help you make this decision, but you can still breastfeed during the day and overnight if you’d like.
Misconception #2: You have to leave your child to “cry it out.”
There’s a huge misconception that sleep training means “cry it out,” which is a term that can be traced back to Dr. Holt in 1894 in his book The Care and Feeding of Children.
“Cry it out” (CIO) is when you place your baby in their crib at night, close the door, and don’t go back into their room until the morning, regardless of whether your child is crying. This is NOT the only method of sleep training. In fact, CIO isn’t best for many children or families, so using an approach that fits the needs of each family is important.
There are sleep training methods that allow you to respond to your child – some that work if you stay in the room, and some that work if you leave the room and come back periodically to reassure and comfort your child. Deciding which method to use is up to each family, but regardless of which is chosen, it doesn’t negatively impact attachment.
In a study by Dr. Diane Benoit, she assures parents that, so long as your child isn’t ill (ear infection, sickness, etc.), there is no negative impact on attachment when you use a sleep training method.
Misconception #3: If you don’t respond to your child’s cries immediately, you will damage your attachment.
Remember that attachment is formed when a child feels safe, secure, and protected. There will be many times throughout your child’s life when they cry.
When they get immunizations, they may cry.
When you tell your toddler they can’t hold the scissors they grabbed from the table, they may cry.
When you tell your child they need to get out of the swimming pool (or rather, when you drag them out), they may cry.
Allowing your child to express their emotions is important. Trying to put a stop to what they’re feeling doesn't allow them to explore or learn ways to cope with the emotions they’re experiencing.
During the sleep training process, your child may cry as you change what they’re used to – and that’s okay! Crying isn’t wrong – it’s a healthy form of expression.
Crying occurs because your child is communicating that they don’t like what’s happening. And yes, you absolutely can respond to your child and reassure them, but no, their attachment won’t be destroyed if you don’t respond to their cries immediately.
In fact, in one Pediatrics study, no difference was found in parent-child closeness or attachment between children who were sleep trained and children who weren't sleep trained.
Promoting a secure attachment with your child is important for their development, but it will take much more than a few days or weeks of sleep training to negatively impact the attachment your child has with you.
How can sleep training benefit your
attachment with your child?
We’ve spent a lot of time debunking some of the popular myths surrounding sleep training and its impact on parent-child attachment. But I also think it’s important to share how sleep training can actually foster your attachment with your child.
When families work with me, it’s usually because they’ve reached a breaking point. They may have tried everything to get their child to sleep better, but nothing has worked. They may feel lost or overwhelmed with their child’s sleepless habits, and just don’t know what to do next.
When you live in that place for too long, feeling lost, hopeless, overwhelmed, or even resentful of a spouse who gets more sleep than you do, it’s not a healthy state to be in.
When you aren’t able to get solid rest because you’re up all night with your child, there’s no way you can function as your best self. And when you’re not able to function well, you may become more short-tempered, angry, or unhappy.
In one study conducted by Leeson, researchers found that rates of depression in mothers dropped from 70% to 10% after sleep training, and that’s not a surprising fact. When you sleep train your child and they learn better sleep skills, do you know what that means for you?
YOU get sleep, too.
There are less bedtime battles.
Less overnight wakings.
And more well-rested nights.
When you’re getting the sleep that you need, you can show up better in all areas of your life, including parenthood. And there’s nothing that can help the parent-child attachment than a parent who is healthy and happy.
Making adjustments to your child’s routine and sleep habits won’t injure them or cause them harm. In fact, sleep is essential to your child’s development, and taking steps to help them get the best sleep is caring, not damaging.
If you’re unsure where to even begin with making changes for your child’s sleep, I suggest checking out and downloading the master sleep chart about wake times – trust me, it’s a game changer when you can ensure your child is getting sleep exactly when they need it.
And if you’re ready to dive into sleep training but want an expert to guide you, book a discovery call with me today so that I can answer any of your questions and talk through what it would look like to partner with me.
Parenting can be hard, but getting your child sleep shouldn’t be. I’m here when you’re ready! If you want to join others mothers who have walked this journey before, join out motherhood support group! There you can find the latest and greatest in sleep research, evidence-based practices, and tips when it comes to navigating your child’s sleep, all things motherhood, their favorite products and services, and live sleep coaching!
Benoit D. (2004). Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome. Paediatrics & child health, 9(8), 541–545. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/9.8.541
Bowlby, J. (1998). Attachment and loss (No. 3). Random House.
Leeson, R., Barbour, J., Romaniuk, D., & Warr, R. (1994). Management of infant sleep problems in a residential unit. Child: care, health and development, 20(2), 89–100. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2214.1994.tb00856.x
Van Ijzendoorn, M. H., Schuengel, C., & Bakermans–Kranenburg, M. J. (1999). Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Development and psychopathology, 11(2), 225-250.
Price, Anna M.H., Melissa Wake, Obioha C. Ukoumunne, Harriet Hiscock; Five-Year Follow-up of Harms and Benefits of Behavioral Infant Sleep Intervention: Randomized Trial. Pediatrics October 2012; 130 (4): 643–651. 10.1542/peds.2011-3467