When my son was born I was determined to be a co-sleeping, baby wearing, nursing on demand, attachment parenting Mama. And I was. The challenge I encountered was that it wasn’t working for me or my baby in terms of sleep. Sure I loved the closeness and bond we had formed. What I did not love was that at the one year mark he was waking and nursing more, not less, as I had hoped and read. As frequently as every 45 minutes all night long and then taking up to two hours to fall back to sleep. And yet, as desperately tired as we both were, I was terrified to change anything out of fear of having to leave him to cry it out and possibly cause him irreparable damage. If you are in a similar position then this post is for you. Following the principles of attachment parenting does not mean that you can’t help your little one improve his sleep patterns. Even Dr. Sears, the guru of attachment parenting offers suggestions for improving baby’s sleep. Yes, sleep training and attachment parenting can in fact coexist! And here’s why:
- Let’s agree to throw away the term sleep “training” altogether. Our babies aren’t pets and I’m not suggesting that you force them to do anything. Instead, focus on sleep “shaping”. Babies sleep can be gently and gradually shaped by improving things such as the timing of sleep, the routine preceding sleep, sleep associations and the sleep environment. Focusing on these foundational elements allows baby’s natural sleep abilities to emerge and develop without implementing any behavioral method at all. In fact many families have changed only those elements and, without any tears, see vast improvements. Sleep shaping doesn’t mean you need to abandon co-sleeping or breastfeeding or that you need to night wean. Healthy sleep habits involves all of the above and, in many cases, the ability for a baby to learn to fall asleep more independently and with less support. This skill can be practiced and achieved all while room or bed sharing, while maintaining a healthy breastfeeding relationship and while continuing to offer overnight feeds. It doesn’t have to be this or that or an all or nothing process.
- Crying it out is not the best or only option. Many of us equate addressing sleep issues with the cry it out approach but that is just one of several options. Your baby can gradually and gently learn to fall asleep more independently with lots of hands on support from you throughout the entire process. Methods such as Tracy Hogg’s Pick up/Put down and Kim West’s Sleep Lady Shuffle allow you to remain with baby and offer support with your presence, voice, and touch while giving her the time and space to practice falling asleep in a new way. Struggle leads to learning. Yes it is hard to see our little one’s fuss and struggle and our instinct is usually to “fix” it. However, frustration and crying in and of themselves are not bad things. Change is hard and babies have just one way to communicate their frustration over trying to learn something new. Frustration in a safe and supportive environment is an important part of the learning process. Much like when baby is about to crawl, sees a toy just out of reach and cries in frustration. Giving him the toy is our first instinct but often a better option is to move it closer to allow him to reach for it on his own. Or placing your hands behind his feet so he can inch toward the toy. Supporting our children to do something rather than doing it for them nurtures learning and the same can be applied to sleep.
- Crying is a form of communication. Change is hard for young and old alike so even the most gentle, gradual, and supported approach may lead to your baby shedding a few tears. Remember that crying is baby’s one way to communicate frustration and is often a healthy release of emotion. The research that is referred to regarding the damaging effects of crying are instances of chronic neglect and prolonged, unattended crying. In stark contrast, crying in a loving and supportive environment with a trusted parent present or nearby who meets all of baby’s needs 24/7 is vastly different. Sleep is a vital component of overall health for both you and your baby. If your current sleeping arrangement is working for you, enjoy it! But if it isn’t getting both of you the right quantity or quality of sleep consider that it may be time to make a change. Change is hard but there are ways to approach it that fit your parenting style and goals and maintain the trusting bond you have with your baby!
Originally published for A Child Grows in Philly