When parents enter my infant yoga classes or pediatric sleep lectures, the chatter I hear in the background often consists of the question of whether to put a newborn on a schedule or follow her lead. One mama is anxious about missing a feeding for her 4 week old, fearing a sleepless night. Another is worried that if she does not bedshare or breastfeed on demand, she will set up an environment for poor attachment. Both mamas are feeling anxiety and self-doubt, stemming from information overload! Dr. Meggan Hartman found that our generation of mothers experience a delay in the development of maternal identity as a result of shame from current parenting ideologies, the internet, and parenting books. I see this shame and anxiety all the time in my work as a pediatric sleep consultant and fully believe that empowering parents to find the path that fits for their family is a way to reconnect parents to the wisdom they have had all along.
Reading books on parenting can be comforting, helpful, and empowering. But, there are those highly opinionated authors who often leave parents doubting their own ability to parent their child – the very child they know better than any one of those authors! The shame and fear that exists around parenting (especially around sleep) is exactly the reason I become a pediatric sleep consultant. I’m here to save parents the confusion and exhaustion! Below, I will debunk loaded messages to new parents about schedules and attachment, so you can feel empowered to navigate sleep and find the strategy that works best for your family.
Striving for the “Perfect” Attachment
Loaded Message #1
Beware of, “baby trainers.” Putting your child on a schedule or letting your baby, “cry it out” to sleep puts a distance between you and your baby…rigid baby training can sabotage your parent-child relationship. ~Dr. William Sears, pediatrician and founder of Attachment Parenting
Attachment Parenting is not the sole path to secure attachment. In fact, it has no connection to attachment theory in early childhood. Where a child sleeps or how long a child breastfeeds in no way shapes the attachment style of parent and child. Obviously, there is more to Attachment Parenting than where a child sleeps, and Dr. Sears has some beautiful and poetic ideas. However, his set of rules are exactly that; they are his opinion on parenting. For some families, this philosophy fits. But, it is not a superior way of fostering secure attachment.
Attachment theory in developmental psychology clearly points out that there are numerous choices when it comes to nurturing the development of secure attachment. The process is not a set of rules but rather a turn-taking of responsibility between parent and child, both getting to know and respond to each other in an attuned fashion. The way this attuned response happens in parenting a child around sleep takes observation of both self and baby, not a set of ideals.
Loaded Message #2
New research suggests that these techniques (sleep training) can have detrimental physiological effects on the baby by increasing the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, with potential long term effects to emotional regulation, sleep patterns and behavior. ~Attachment Parenting International
This statement is scary for new parents to read and has caused a lot of stir on social media, resulting in unnecessary mommy guilt and sleep deprivation! So, let’s take a closer look at sample size and methodology of the mentioned study. Middlemiss, who was the lead researcher of this study gathered just 25 families to participate and had no control group. So, we do not know what cortisol levels would have been for children who experienced the same set of changes, minus the sleep training. The babies were studied in a hospital (strange environment), while nurses (strangers) used extinction method (cry-it-out) with forced nighttime weaning. The mothers were in the hospital but were prohibited to attend to or feed their babies. The strange environment, the absence of the mothers, or the forced night weaning could raise cortisol levels. We simply do not have any conclusive information from this study.
It is also important to note that extinction method (leaving baby to cry in his room for hours, if needed, with no parent present or check-ins) is not Ferber method. With Ferber method, the child slowly takes on more responsibility. And, the parent is always close by, frequently visiting the child. While the above study tells us very little, there are numerous longitudinal studies on the efficacy and safety of Ferber Method and other parent-present methods of sleep learning. Unfortunately, peer-reviewed, academic literature is hard to come by on social media. However, if you email me, I am happy to send some good reads!
Establishing the “Right”Schedule
Loaded Message #3
It is important for you to say to yourself, “I am the parent, I am in charge. You are the baby, you follow my guidelines. ~Suzi Giordano, author of, “Twelve Hours Sleep by 12 Weeks Old”
Parents often worry about setting up “bad” sleep habits. Those first few months are about survival – for everyone. Developmentally, we want babies to wake often in those early weeks, both for feeding and for safety (Guilleminault). And, we want parents and infants to get to know each other, outside of following a set of directions. Healthy attachment is created by awareness of self and other and emotionally attuned response to your infant. There is so much going on those first few months and development is changing constantly. What is working for sleep [in those early months], works until it doesn’t or works until the next week when development yet again makes a shift. I get numerous calls from parents who believe, “I know I created this bad habit.” To this, I answer, “No, you didn’t. You did what worked for you and your child and what felt right at the time. Now, it no longer fits your needs or your baby’s needs, so we can adjust.” Every family has unique ways they navigate those first few months. And, it is all part of your parenting development as well as the path to learning who your child is and what nurtures him. There is no need to add the stress of getting sleep right or wrong. Learn to trust yourself as your baby’s parent and get to know your baby. That is the focus of these first few months. Trust, finding your rhythm, and developing emotional availability.
Loaded Message #4
WARNING: If your child does not learn to sleep well, he may become an incurable adult insomniac, chronically disabled from sleepiness and dependent on sleeping pills. ~Dr. Marc Weissbluth, pediatrician
This statement could easily be read as, “If I do not sleep train my baby, he could become a chronically disabled drug addict.” Rest well, there is no data to back this viewpoint. While sleep deprivation does impact development, it does not directly lead to addiction!! Dr. Weissbluth’s book is highly opinionated and full of scare tactics to get parents to sleep train. I believe his intention is good, just as Dr. Sears has heartfelt objectives. However, these extreme messages can and do create unnecessary fear for new parents.
We also need to keep in mind that you can make a baby or toddler do just about anything. However, this does not mean he is learning. The reality is that some babies have strong sleep expectations (often called sleep crutches in popular pediatric sleep literature) and others do not. Some babies sleep easily while others need practice learning the skill. Sleep happens best when there is trust and safety in the environment and in relationships and not because parents are following a strict schedule or sleep training strategy in those early weeks.
Finding Your Fit
There are two extremes of, “the perfect parent” – the one who has everything planned out and the one who is at the beck-and-call of baby. The truth is that there are unlimited ways of being a “good parent.” We know this, because Bolby and Ainsworth spent years studying attachment and Winnicott spent an equal amount of time studying parenting and development. The choice of baby led or setting a strict schedule does not define the competence or goodness of a mother. Nor, does it dictate how a child will sleep.
What does help a child develop healthy sleep habits is emotional availability (EA) of the parent at bedtime (Teti). This is exactly what I help parents develop. Having emotional availability means a parent can provide the right amount of structure necessary for guiding the child’s learning. The parent is supporting the child’s development of autonomy all while being sensitive and non-intrusive. When a parent approaches sleep with EA, a child is more likely to take on ownership and respond positively to the limits and boundaries set by the parent. This happens, because the child feels safe and can relax into sleep.
Developing EA is a process that starts when a baby is a newborn. Instead of instructing parents to follow a strict routine or to fully let baby lead, I tell parents of newborns to, “let them lead, set routine.” This is balance. It is finding your family’s rhythm. And, it is the path to developing parental identity/confidence, healthy sleep, and secure attachment. Parents will notice that around 4 months, babies start to have a rhythm. Solidifying this rhythm through ritual and routine both honors the child’s organic needs and provides safety in structure that baby craves in order to relax into sleep. Trusting this process allows parents and child time to get to know each other, so that secure attachment and emotional availability can develop. New parents do not need to worry about implementing the perfect schedule or feel pressured to bedshare. Neither of these are the secret sauce to developing healthy sleep habits.
If your child is struggling with sleep, know that it is not because you did not follow the right set of parenting ideals or that you did something wrong. Sleep is a skill that some children struggle with and need a boost of confidence in order to find success. It is that simple and that complicated. All babies and families have a different path. I’m here to help you find the path that fits best for your family, fits within your parenting values, and honors your child’s development.