Will Sleep Training Affect Attachment With My Child?

will sleep training destroy attachment with my child
Victoria Bermudez

Victoria Bermudez

When deciding whether or not to sleep train my son, attachment was something that was at the forefront of my mind. I kept asking myself “will sleep training affect attachment with my child?”

Maintaining healthy attachment with my son was a priority for me, as I’m sure it is for most parents. We all want to raise happy, emotionally intelligent, and well-adjusted children. It is important to me to have a secure and fulfilling relationship with him, where he felt loved and knew he could depend on me to meet his needs.

But, after a few Google searches, I started to wonder if I could have all of that AND sleep. Rather than wade through the numerous opinions on the internet, I decided to go back to what I knew from my education in Child Psychology. I found comfort in my understanding of Attachment Theory and especially secure attachment.

If you are also asking yourself “will sleep training affect attachment with my child?” I’m going to help answer that question below. (short answer: it doesn’t!)

Attachment Theory – What Is It And Why Does It Matter

Attachment is an emotional bond with another person. While attachment is usually referred to in context with caregivers and parent-child relationships, we all have attachments to people in our lives – our own parents, siblings, friends, and our spouses/partners. Attachment is what makes your relationships important to you, and gives it a deep, enduring meaning.

Attachment Theory is mainly attributed to two psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. At different times, they both devoted tons of research to attachment. Ainsworth published a groundbreaking study in the 1970s called the “Strange Situation”.

Researchers separated infants from their parents for a short amount of time in order to observe their behavior when reunited. This information was then used to categorize attachment into “styles” which include secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

A secure attachment creates:

  • a sense of safety and security within the child
  • helps with emotion regulation and soothing distress
  • provides a “secure base” for the child to explore from

This means that the child can temporarily separate from the caregiver to learn about the world around them. When they return to their parent, they feel comfort and joy, even if they were distressed about the separation.

How And When Do Children Form Attachments?

Our children begin to form attachments in the first year of life. During that time, they hit a few “attachment milestones” along the way.

Newborns have what is called indiscriminate attachment. They don’t care who is responding to them, as long as someone is. Your newborn will take a bottle from any caregiver, fall asleep on any warm body. They are working on learning to recognize their primary caregivers but they’re not especially picky.

Around 6-7 months, you might notice a bout of separation anxiety, specifically with the primary caregiver. It is stressful to all of a sudden not be able to leave the room for more than a second! This is a sign that your baby is beginning to form a discriminate attachment – to you! Your baby has learned that you are a really important part of their life, they can count on you, and they’re learning that they love you. This is brand new, and they are testing the relationship to help make sense of it.

After about 9 months, babies are capable of forming multiple attachments. Usually, these attachments are to a few primary caregivers. Parents, daycare providers, and relatives they see and interact with very frequently are common attachments. This will often bring about some more separation anxiety as they begin to make sense of these new feelings. Keep in mind it’s temporary and will pass!

How To Keep A Secure Attachment During Sleep Training

In the Strange Situation study, securely attached children were distressed when separated from their caregiver. But they were able to be comforted and calmed when reunited with them. This is an incredibly important distinction when it comes to sleep training and attachment.

A secure attachment comes from responding to your child sensitively and accurately most of the time, and also (maybe even mostly) from repairing any mis-attunements. This is good news because it means that being an imperfect parent will actually strengthen attachment. It teaches your child that they can still depend on you even if there is a mismatch.

We are human and we are going to misstep, miss cues, or mistake them for something else. And if you’re sleep training, you’re going to set a boundary and allow your baby or child to express their big feelings about it. When you repair these mis-attunements, you are strengthening your attachment with your baby and reinforcing that they can trust you.

Top Tips For Maintaining A Secure Attachment During Sleep Training:

  1. Communicate with your child about the changes and what they can expect from you. If your child is 2.5 or older, sit down with them for a family meeting. Establish clear expectations with sleep rules. For younger toddlers and babies, narrate and talk through things with them before, during, and after they take place. Even if they can’t understand your words, they will hear the calm in your voice and see your cool, confident body language. This will go a long way in helping them to feel secure during this time of change.
  2. Offer extra comfort and connection time during awake time. You might notice that in the first few days, your child is clingier or has a little separation anxiety. This is normal! Offer plenty of comfort, close contact, and play during awake time. Helping your baby to soothe and co-regulate while they make sense of the new expectations will strengthen attachment. Your little one will see that you will continue to meet their needs.
  3. Stay consistent. Think of sleep training as a trust-building exercise for both of you. Trust that your child can do this! Your child is capable of healthy, independent sleep even if they need some time to learn the skill. And you can do this too – you are the best teacher for your child! It is important to send a clear, consistent message to your child. In a relatively short period of time, your child will know what they can expect at sleepytimes.
  4. 4. Prioritize your own sleep. Helping your child to develop healthy sleep habits will help your whole family to get more sleep. When you are well-rested, you will be more able to respond sensitively to your child and meet their emotional needs.
  5. 5. Just keep being yourself. If you’re here, and you’re reading this article, I know you’re already doing an amazing job. If you’re concerned about attachment, there’s a really good chance you’re already a responsive and loving parent and have built a strong foundation of trust with your child. Keep up the good work!

The Bottom Line

You can set boundaries around sleep and maintain a secure attachment with your child. Nothing in parenting is black and white. Being a responsive, loving (and wonderfully imperfect) caregiver to your child, teaches that your child can trust and depend on you to meet their needs. And remember, sleep is a need – for your child, and for you too.

Feeling more assured with your decision to sleep train, but don’t know where to start? We’d love to help you teach your child healthy sleep habits! Schedule your free discovery call today.

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