If there is one topic that sets off a mommy war, it is sleep! To sleep train or not to sleep train, that is the question. Do you put your baby on a schedule starting the day you come home from the hospital, or do you set up a family bed and breastfeed on demand? Making a decision can sometimes pigeonhole you into a parenting style, leaving you to defend yourself anytime the topic of sleep is brought up. This topic creates a significant amount of unnecessary shame and guilt for new mothers! But, it does not have to be that way! Co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and healthy sleep habits for families can co-exist. You do not have to put baby on a strict schedule or let her cry-it-out in order for her to sleep, and you don’t have to set up a family bed in order to foster secure attachment. Below is a little science behind the flexibility and choices.
Attachment theory in developmental psychology is different from Attachment Parenting, founded by Dr. Sears. In attachment theory, developmental theorists, Bowlby and Ainsworth were interested in the relationship between parent and child and how these early relationships play a role in our attachment styles throughout our lifetime. What they found is that a child needs a caregiver to be responsive in order to develop secure attachment style. Attachment Parenting basically spells out some ways a parent can be responsive. But, there are a countless ways parents are responsive without strictly following Attachment Parenting. Contingent responsiveness to a child is defined as listening to the child or observing their nonverbal communication and responding in a way that fits their needs in that moment. Following strict parenting ideologies can often delay this ability to form a relationship based on contingent responsiveness. Why? Because we are responding based on someone else’s rules rather than tapping into our intuitive ability and self-awareness in order to parent our child. What this tells us is that attachment is not formed based on where a child sleeps. It is formed based on a parent’s responsiveness to the child’s communication, regarding sleep.
Co-Sleeping and Bedsharing
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents for the first 12 months of life, on a separate and firm surface, free of pillows and blankets. This is the definition of co-sleeping. Bedsharing or the family bed is when the child sleeps on the same surface as the parent. Dr. James McKenna is leading the research in the safety and benefits of both of these sleep arrangements, giving parents more choices about what fits best for their family. What fosters healthy attachment and sleep is awareness of and responsiveness to the child’s needs. Where does your child get the best sleep? It could be the family bed or his own little bed, or some choice in between. What matters is that we, as parents can decipher between our own opinions about what is best, the noise we hear from multiple sources and our child’s true needs.
Sleep Training and Emotional Availability
The term, “sleep training,” is a loaded phrase that can get you kicked out of some clubs. But, just like with all of parenting, there are choices about how to parent your child around sleep. Essentially, when sleep training is done mindfully, it is just that, it is parenting your child around sleep. How you choose to do it can reflect your parenting identity, your child’s needs, and your goals. Dr. Teti found that the key to a child’s sleep success is experiencing emotional availability at bedtime. What does this mean? Emotional availability is quality communication and connection between caregiver and child. It involves being sensitive, setting boundaries, giving space, and offering tender communication. This takes a great deal of self-awareness and self-control from the parent. It requires understanding why we respond in the ways that we do and being able to instead respond contingently based on our child’s communication. Again, we see that neither attachment nor healthy sleep habits are dependent upon where a child sleeps, but rather on awareness of self and child and the ability to distinguish our dedication to a parenting philosophy from our child’s needs.
Breastfeeding and Sleep
Breastfeeding is a tender relationship, not to be taken lightly. A common myth about sleep training or developing healthy sleep habits is that you have to wean your baby, or at the very least night wean, your baby. This is simply not true, and for some mamas it feels very important to keep these night feedings. Babies have a wide age range for nutritionally being ready to night wean, anywhere between 4 months and 12 months of age. What is important is that the baby is staying on his growth curve and gaining weight appropriately. It is also essential to take into consideration mom’s milk supply and any history of clogged milk ducts, engorgement, or mastitis. Lastly, how mom and child want to continue this nighttime nursing relationship needs to be considered. Some moms and babies are ready to give up these feedings as soon as the pediatrician gives the green light, while others really enjoy having a cozy middle of the night feed. There are endless options of how to keep nursing an important part of bedtime and nighttime routines, while still getting a healthy amount of sleep.
The Goals and Strategies are Up to Your Family
Understanding that attachment is not reliant on where a child sleeps or how long she breastfeeds, gives parents more options. Also knowing that the breastfeeding relationship can be preserved during sleep training creates options for sleep deprived families to find the right fit for their sleep and breastfeeding needs. What is important in parenting a child around sleep, is communication and response. Families can have a family bed and get a full night of sleep. Moms can night wean their babies and still foster healthy attachment. The important piece is that we are aware of why we are making the choices we are making and respond to our children not from a set of rules written in a book about sleep training or a pediatrician’s rules about parenting. Parents and children together are in the driver seat for each individual family, finding a rhythm around sleep that works best for them. As a sleep consultant and lactation educator, I guide clients through a supported process. I help families tap into what feels most important to them and create personalized strategies that foster these values. I continue to work as a team with my families until they reach their goals. To learn more, please visit me at candybeers-kim.com.