Dr. Mona's Mom Blog

Secure attachment and sleep training (yes, they CAN co-exist!)

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Sleep training your baby WILL NOT impact you having a bond with them. Secure attachment is attainable for everyone. Let’s break it down. 

Will sleep training impact the bond with my child?

Parents need to look at sleep training as a skill we teach our babies. Whatever method you choose, your baby will be bonded to you and have secure attachment. Remember, you are giving them all the snuggles, cuddles, love, etc., before bed and in the morning. With whatever method you choose, you are there with your loving face at some point, which adds to the secure attachment.

When does secure attachment start?

It’s difficult to determine secure attachment before 9 months of age. Before that, secure attachment is simply defined as development – for example, an interaction with baby that’s pleasant. 

What about cortisol and stress?

Anti-sleep trainers love to talk about cortisol. The scientific facts are that it’s good in little amounts, but maybe not so good in large amounts. Cortisol was created by the body to help us in everyday life. It helps us wake up and then calm down before it’s time to sleep. It helps us “respond” to everyday life threats. All this to say, based on the research, there is no data that says crying it out will raise a baby’s cortisol levels to a point where it would be detrimental to their development due to the amount of stress. 

So those claims are false?

Prenatally, we see the stress response being active around 20 weeks gestation. Mom and baby have a stress response that rises and falls together. Cortisol also helps organs mature and labor to begin, so we actually want a good amount of cortisol. It only begins to become detrimental when there is too much stress for the mother, HOWEVER the studies that we have researched are world events such as the Dutch Hunger Winter during World War 2 (where food supply lines were cut off) – NOT when a modern mama chooses to do a CIO method she knows her child is ready for.

In fact, CIO methods can actually be seen as a positive stress response because an infant at that time is learning how to self regulate and is learning the skill of putting themselves to sleep. There are no studies that have been done that have found negative long term effects on infant development from the various sleep training methods. 

I did a CIO method with Ryaan

We did a CIO method with Ryaan and he is still securely attached to me. I didn’t baby wear him. I didn’t breastfeed him. You can still establish a secure attachment with a child without having physical attachment. Modern parents want their child to feel loved and nurtured, which you can do with some level of separation. All that being said, CIO methods may not work for all babies – it totally depends on your child’s nature and you as the parent know your child best. It all comes down to parental comfort. 

A misconception on sleep training is that we are literally callous when we do it – that we dump the child in the crib and run out. When we were doing it, I sat with him, read to him, sang to him, etc. It was a 30 minute bed time routine that was filled with love and nurture. Teaching independent sleep is simply giving your child an opportunity to learn how to fall asleep by themselves. 

Unrealistic expectations

Secure attachment parenting can create unrealistic expectations – like you must breastfeed, baby wear, and keep the baby close to you at all times. I think all those things are great, but there are other ways to create secure attachment without them, too. Secure attachment can’t be boiled down to a list of tactics that you do or don’t do. Attachment parenting is different from secure attachment parenting. You want secure, you don’t want tight attachment. 

If I use a cry method, will my baby be dysregulated and just give up?

These are unfortunately the types of misinformed messages all over social media. Babies will not become dysregulated if you sleep train them. They don’t “give up.” They eventually learn that “Hey, I am used to having this to go back to sleep, but I am capable of doing it on my own.” It’s not dysregulation and giving up; it’s learning to sleep on their own.

Is there a best time to start sleep-training?

After four months is the general recommendation. In rare occasions will I support as early as two months—these are babies who are already sleeping longer stretches (8 hours+ at two months) and have an “easy-to-calm” temperament. As a baby gets older, sleep training is possible, but it gets harder because they have more time with their sleep associations.

What are sleep associations?

Sleep associations are anything a baby needs to go back down to sleep. When a baby is not sleep trained and wakes up, they associate any activity, person, or item as the means to going back to sleep. For example, if they were nursed to sleep and wake up in-between sleep cycles at night, they will have the sleep association that they need to nurse to sleep again. Sleep training teaches an infant that you don’t NEED anything to go to sleep and you are capable of doing it on your own. Using these sleep associations is fine, but a baby can be taught to not need them whenever you are ready for that.

I successfully sleep trained my baby! That means we’re good for their childhood, right?

Not so fast. Babies and toddlers will have changes in sleep many times. These are often called regressions and have more to do with developmental progressions.

For more, check out episode 16 of The PedsDocTalk podcast with Dr. Brie Reid: Cry Babies: Cortisol Research and Secure Attachment.

P.S. With baby spending about 2/3 of their days sleeping, there are a lot of questions new moms have around safe sleep! Download this guide to get a a safe sleep checklist!

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All information presented on this blog, my Instagram, and my podcast is for educational purposes and should not be taken as personal medical advice. These platforms are to educate and should not replace the medical judgment of a licensed healthcare provider who is evaluating a patient.

It is the responsibility of the guardian to seek appropriate medical attention when they are concerned about their child.

All opinions are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or hospitals I may be affiliated with.