Can Sleep Training and Attachment Parenting Co-Exist?

Often, sleep training and attachment parenting are pitted against each other.

As if wanting your child to have a restful sleep with strong sleep skills and a secure, loving attachment to parents can’t mutually exist.

That’s just not true.

Before we go on, I think it’s important to define a few terms.

Sleep Training: Helping your child develop skills to fall asleep and stay asleep independently.

Attachment Parenting: A parenting philosophy aimed at promoting the attachment of baby and parent, usually with an emphasis on responsiveness.

What’s the Deal with Sleep Training Versus Attachment Parenting?

In the 80s-90s, American pediatrician William Sears coined “Attachment Parenting” when he discussed a parenting philosophy that focused on responsiveness of the parent to the child. In short: parents should respond to their children’s needs.

This idea doesn’t seem ludacris. It’s instinctual.

So where did the divide between sleep training and attachment parenting come from?

A misunderstanding.

Many think that sleep training equals “cry-it-out,” and leaving your child alone in a room while they’re crying isn’t being responsive, which is what attachment parenting centers on. However, as I’ve mentioned before, sleep training doesn’t have to be “cry-it-out.”

Thinking that you need to be in the sleep training camp or the attachment parenting camp is cutting yourself short. You can have the best of both. And in this post, I want to talk about what that can look like.

Misunderstanding Attachment Parenting in Relation to Sleep

When parents learn of attachment parenting and see Sears’ promotion of babywearing and co-sleeping, it’s easy to associate the philosophy of attachment parenting with attachment — mom and baby physically being attached.

And this results in a bit of misunderstanding.

When parents misunderstand the idea of attachment parenting and apply it to sleep, it may look something like this:

  • Their little one wakes up early from a nap and starts crying, and the parents swoop in to pick up the baby and comfort her.
  • Their baby wakes up in the middle of the night, and the second crying begins, they get out of bed to pick up the baby.
  • They lay their child down for a nap, but their child starts crying, so they pick them up and decide to prevent crying, they will let them skip their nap.

In these situations, a parent has the best intentions — they want to be responsive to their children. But being responsive doesn’t have to equal “physically attached.”

In fact, when parents think they must be physically attached to their child, they miss the other half of attachment parenting: not only is it warmth and responsiveness, but also noticing when your child doesn’t need your help and is ready for new challenges that are part of developing and learning.

That last piece of attachment parenting is how we encourage growth and independence over time.

What does developmentally-appropriate independence look like?

In the first 3-4 months of your child’s life, there is no independence for them — they literally depend on you to survive. They need your skin contact to learn to regulate their own temperature. They need to be held to feel safe and secure. They need to breastfeed or bottle feed often. They need 100% of a caregiver’s attention.

In these first few months, a parent absolutely can be “over-responsive” — and often, they are. Moms and dads know the feeling of staring at your baby’s chest to make sure they’re still breathing, or waking up frantic because they slept longer than normal and you need to make sure they’re okay.

After those first few months, a child can begin to experience a little more independence because they have a strong, secure foundation.

Here’s what independence may look like for young children:

  • Your child spends a little more time on the floor as they learn to sit, crawl, and walk. 
  • Your baby begins to stand up and walk while holding on to furniture. 
  • Your baby starts to self-feed with finger foods, or they’ll hold their own bottle.
  • Your child can replace their paci if it falls out of their mouth.

Now imagine if, while your child is learning these new skills and practicing their independence, you immediately swoop in to do what they’re trying to do. Instead of letting them fall down while learning to walk, you carry them everywhere. Or instead of letting them hold their own bottle because they’ve dropped it a time or two, you always hold it for them.

How would your child ever learn those skills if you never gave them the chance to do so on their own? Yes, attachment parenting includes responsiveness. But a bigger tenant is creating a secure environment that allows your child to practice independence.

How can sleep training and attachment parenting work together?

In the first few months, a baby relies on their parents to soothe them. That’s how trust is built. Passing the job of soothing from parent to child is absolutely a part of attachment theory. 

So let’s talk about how sleep training and attachment parenting could work together.

In the first four months, your job is to respond to your baby’s needs. You can use any method to soothe your child — you can hold them, feed them, rock them, push them in a stroller, let them contact nap, etc. During this time, your child is learning to trust you and trust their world.

Babies need our warmth and touch, and when we are the ones to soothe them, it builds a sense of confidence. This is the very base of attachment parenting.

After the first 4 months, your baby is ready to take more of an initiative in their sleep. You can gradually begin to give them more independence, by laying them down in their crib instead of holding them to sleep, or by allowing them to comfort themselves by sucking their fists instead of nursing them (as long as we know they are full and satisfied).

It’s this small step of giving your child more independence that allows them to learn how to fall asleep on their own.

Notice I didn’t say you need to leave them on their own to cry? You can still respond to them. You can still pick them up if needed. But take a small step one day. And then take another small step the next. And then another the next.

Keep moving toward independence while being loving and supportive, and your child will thrive in all areas.

Still have questions about sleep training? Message me on Instagram and let’s chat about it.

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I’m Katie

certified pediatric sleep consultant

Fueled by equal parts caffeine and passion, I spend my days helping exhausted mamas get their babies the sleep they need. 

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