Can You Mix Attachment Parenting With Sleep Training?

Can You Mix Attachment Parenting With Sleep Training?

Before I had a baby, I did not know anything about “attachment parenting” nor had I ever heard the term. It is a little “weird” considering I am an avid reader (well, before kids and this website when I used to have time). I guess none of my friends ever mentioned it and I was never exposed, even though Dr. Sears coined the term with his wife over 20 years ago. I did know I wanted to breastfeed. And I knew I didn’t want to co-sleep (though we did anyway out of necessity for a short time). If there were Attachment Parenting Police, I’d probably fail at least two and two halves of the Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting (as I understand them). Read on to learn what I’ve learned and how I’ve helped others!

Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting:

1. I prepared for birth and educated myself on newborn care. I was flexible and set realistic expectations. (PASS)
2. I breastfed for the first year. (PASS)
3. I tuned in to what my children needed and responded appropriately, but we did work on self-soothing. (PASS AND FAIL)
4. I carried my babies in a sling or Bjorn and had lots of skin-to-skin contact. And yes, I even let them sleep there when they were young! (PASS)
5. I only co-slept for eight weeks and sleep trained. (FAIL)
6. I did not stay home with the kids, though I worked from home. I did breastfeed during the day, at least. (PASS AND FAIL)
7. We practice positive discipline, but not completely. We did use time out, too, along with loss of privileges. With my persistent and strong-willed son, positive tactics just didn’t always work for us. (FAIL)
8. I try very hard to balance personal and family life. (PASS)

I would argue that my boys have still formed a healthy attachment to us, but I’m not here to debate the philosophies or theory of Attachment Parenting. Anything that promotes healthy and positive relationships is a great thing in my book and, as I always say, you need to find what works for your family. I am all about balance. I eat fast food, but not every day. That sort of thing. So, it doesn’t surprise me that my instincts led to some attachment parenting principles and not others. I doubt I would have done anything differently had I researched attachment parenting more than I have to date. We simply could NOT function how we were in the subject of “baby sleep.”

I am continually happy when parents say something to the effect “Thank God you gave me advice that actually comforts my baby.” I don’t know everything about Attachment Parenting, but one thing you can’t NOT learn is that it is frowned upon to do sleep training when you are practicing attachment parenting. And, I take it very seriously when someone shares with me they practice AP in their communication with me, because I do know how passionate AP parents are.

But, what is a mom to do when she’s waking up 10 times a night with a breastfeeding, pacifier-demanding, or rocking-addicted baby? I say sleep train!

But, I am here to change the definition of “sleep train”. Sleep training does NOT have to mean controlled crying or cry it out or any other variation of it. I’m pretty sure that attachment parenting parents potty train (baby-led mostly), so why can’t you sleep train? Well, yeah, you potty train a toddler, not a baby (unless you practice Elimination Communication). I get that. If you can potty train gently, you can sleep train gently, too. Once you understand the mechanics of sleep associations, you don’t necessarily want to wait for two, three, or four-plus years later for baby-led, though, in my opinion. I think it’s always worth a try and you can always re-evaluate if it doesn’t go well. Just because the baby hasn’t self-soothed, doesn’t mean he CAN’T self-soothe, does it?

I received an e-mail one day from a woman named Rebecca and she wanted to know if she thought I could help her. She sent me an overview of her situation, a little bit about what she had tried, and her parameters. She shared, “I practice attachment parenting and I can’t let him cry at all.” I wrote back that I felt I could help her, but could not promise NO tears. Limit tears? Yes. Do you have to leave him alone? No. I explained how babies cry to communicate, just like my son cried when he wet his underwear when he was first learning to use the potty.

It’s not like your baby is going to calmly say “Mommy, why aren’t you feeding me to sleep anymore? I don’t really like that. I’m sleepy and now I can’t sleep because YOU decided you were going to make some changes to my routine. I’m not liking this change in my routine much, even if I might be fine with it in a week.” I go over in detail why I can’t promise NO tears in my article How Crying Can Lead to Babies Sleeping. So, I won’t fully go into it here.

I must have said something right to Rebecca because she bought an email package and a small add-on one once we were in full swing (to keep her momentum going). She was so nervous about this process that she gave me permission to give up on them in her first e-mail. Luckily, I don’t give up easily. 🙂 I’m not going to tell you everything that happened because I thought it might be better for you to hear it from her (see below). She wrote such a nice letter to YOU, that it seemed better to share it here. (You can also hear her at the end of my Basics of Toddler Sleep Audio Course saying thank you.)

This is NOT to tell you to hire me as your sleep consultant (unless you want to, ha!). This is to give you hope. You CAN make a difference in your and your baby’s life by “sleep training” even when you are “attachment parenting.” Truth be told, success will NOT come as quickly for everyone as it did for Rebecca. Only some will succeed without sacrificing anything, but until you try, you just never know.

Rebecca’s Story:

Without further ado, here is Rebecca’s story, in her words (non-edited as it will be on the Parent Stories page):

“When I came across The Baby Sleep Site, it was quite by accident. I wasn’t looking for it, but I stumbled across it while searching for websites that addressed sleep issues. At the time, I had a 10-month old son who was sleeping in a sidecar arrangement (crib up against my bed with one side missing) and waking 4-6 times every night. He went through a bad time early on: he had reflux for the first 9 months of his life, plus around month 5-6 he had a bad reaction to an antibiotic treatment and wound up with serious gastrointestinal issues (waking every 2-3 hours with diarrhea). Nursing was always a method of deep relaxation leading to sleep and had now become a necessity to get my son to sleep even after all the physical issues were over. His napping was always very poor and then around 7 months of age the only time he slept for naps was in the car. If I tried to put him in his crib or even lay with him in bed, he’d only sleep for 30-45 minutes once a day, twice only if I was very lucky. While I had done a ton of reading on the subject of sleep issues and Attachment Parenting (the methodology I had followed since birth) and tried to believe that someday my son would “grow up” and would grow out of this stage he was in, I was feeling a tremendous uneasiness about how things were going. Deep down I felt like he was missing out on precious sleep, even though his attitude was positive most of the time. Something in his eyes told me he was more tired than he let on.

When I first entered the site, I was more skeptical than I can ever express in words. The first thing I did was download the “5 Ways To Help Your Baby Sleep Through The Night” and “7 Common Napping Mistakes” figuring they’re free and maybe they would help. No dice – not for my situation. I started receiving the newsletter and reading Nicole’s in-depth commentaries. At the end of each newsletter is the invitation to visit the services page and/or to contact Nicole with questions. For weeks I saved these newsletters and kept mulling over and over whether I wanted to spend the money to start emailing Nicole. Although everything sounded legitimate, I thought there had to be something I was missing and that it would be a mere waste of money. Another online scam. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer – I decided simply to start by taking Nicole up on her continuous offer to “email with questions.” I gave her a very brief synopsis of the situation and asked if she felt it was something she could indeed help me with. Her email back to me was quick and left me feeling very positive. I decided to purchase an email package and get to work trying to help my son, and myself for that matter.

What transpired from that point on (we started our work together at the beginning of August) was nothing short of miraculous. Granted, the first day or two was the most difficult but in retrospect, there were close to no tears from either my son or me. Being a Christian woman I’d been praying for something to happen to bring the needed rest for my son. I would pray daily, before every nap and before every bedtime, to “please let Ben get the sleep he needs.” Enter Nicole and The Baby Sleep Site. I can honestly say that “meeting” Nicole and taking the financial and emotional risk that it felt like at the time, was the answer to prayer that I’d been looking for. Nicole had given me a multi-step approach to getting my son to disassociate the breast with falling asleep at nap time (we worked on that first, which incidentally is opposite to what Nicole would normally do) and from there another step-by-step approach to get him disassociating the breast with falling asleep at night, and then to get him into his crib completely away from my bed. From there we were going to work on getting him into his own room and getting him to allow being put to bed by other people (his own father included). I am grateful to report that within 3-4 weeks, my son was taking two 1.5-2 hour naps in his own crib (with all 4 sides up) and being put down with NO breastfeeding at all and completely awake/sitting up. NO TEARS. Not only that, but the bedtime issues were resolved almost on their own, just utilizing some of the same methods we’d come up with to fix the napping issues. Something I expected to take months, took mere weeks, days even. My son is now, and has been for quite some time, sleeping 12 hours a night and two 1.5-2 hours naps a day. No more night waking or nursing to sleep. All 98% tear-free. Any change as major as the one my son experienced is most likely going to cause some degree of sadness, and invoke tears, depending on the sensitivity of the child. For the changes and benefits I see now in my son’s sleeping habits, the 10 minutes he cried for a couple of days is so worth it – and I was completely against ANY amount of crying around “sleep training.” With Nicole’s help and understanding, something you’ll never find in a book, I was able to truly “train” my son in the most gentle and personalized manner I could ever find.

God bless you, Nicole, for the help you have provided to me and countless other families. You were the answer I was seeking. I wish you continued success in your endeavor to bring peace in the form of needed sleep to many, many more babies and parents to come!

Westfield, MA

Yes! Attachment Parenting and Sleep Training CAN go together! 

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11 thoughts on “Can You Mix Attachment Parenting With Sleep Training?”

  1. We definitely mixed the two. We bought a co-sleeper and fully intended to only let the little guy sleep there until we felt he was ready to move into his own room, which we hoped would be around when I went back to work (four months). But little man had other ideas, he would only sleep in bed with us. We co-slept exclusively with him until seven months.

    Then we started trying to transition him to his crib. Which he would usually only sleep in for the first stretch of the night (9-2) and then he would end up in our bed. It is only recently that he has been sleeping the whole night in his crib and that is thanks entirely to this site.

    He is 14 months old now and he was getting harder and harder to put down at night and was waking up for hours at a time in the middle of the night. We strongly did not believe in Cry It Out, but reading Nicole’s articles convinced us to try some controlled crying and it worked! Now he will cry a little when we put him down, but usually he stops within a minute or two. We went from 2 hours to get him down to a max of 30 minutes now and most nights it only takes a few minutes.

    We mixed AP parenting in other aspects too. We never dictated nap times to him and we had an Ergo, but also a stroller. He never latched, so I didn’t breastfeed, but I did pump and feed him breastmilk until 1 year. I would have liked to have fed him breastmilk longer if he had taken to breastfeeding. So, I totally agree, mix and match parenting is definitely the way to go, in our case at least.

  2. Absolutely! Like many others, I read Sears before I had my first and had myself convinced that AP was the way to go. Many things that I do now, based on my instinct and search for balance and harmony in my household are in line with AP philosophy. However, sleep training for us was wonderful in that everyone in the house started sleeping better. My daughter is a calm and cheerful girl, but does get angry when she doesn’t get what she wants and sleep training consisted of alot of angry screaming! Yes, it was really awful at first. But I came to realize it was important for her to discharge this energy and she quickly learned how to fall asleep on her own. I never trained her not to feed at night, I let her self ween (which she did at 6 months).

    So even though we let our daughter do the full blown ‘cry it out’ (after trying all the others which just made it worse), I don’t think any little girl could be more loved or cared for than she is. I spend all day with her… in my arms, playing on the floor, etc. etc. We are so attached, I can’t imagine being more attached than we already are (even though she sleeps in her crib and has been sleep trained).
    So I have gone the other way now, and have a hard time with the phrase ‘attachment parenting’ and all its supposed to mean. I don’t think it takes into account all children’s and family’s unique dynamics. Re-reading Sears, I resent some of the things he says, like joking that the crib should be put out on the curb. Some babies do better in the crib. It may work for some to follow a set of guidelines, I thought it would work for me. However, I quickly realized it is about instinct, intuition, flexibility and balance. I make my parenting choices based out of love and knowing the strength of my love and drive to protect and care for my daughter, I trust that the decisions I make for my family are the best that I can do at any given time.

    Thanks for posing this question Nicole!

    • @Jenn- For many 4 month olds, it is not uncommon for them to need to eat 2-3 times per night. He could truly be hungry at that time. Have you tried a full feeding when he wakes a 3:30 to see if that helps? Babies this age still have tiny tummies and so 2-3 feeds in 11-12 hours at night is not unexpected. I would recommend trying for full feeds, but to gently unlatch him when the eating seems to slow so that you can lay him back down drowsy but not fully asleep.

      @Cam- It wouldn’t be uncommon for him to still need at least on night feeding to get through the night and possibly 2 if he’s a bigger baby or going through a growth spurt. One thing would be to try to track how much he’s eating/drinking during the day to make sure he’s getting enough during the day and not trying to make up for it at night. If it he seems to get plenty of eating/drinking during the day, then it could be that he’s hasn’t quite learned how to self soothe back to sleep when he wakes at night. For most babies, falling asleep on their own at bed time is one skill and it’s another skill for them to know how to go back to sleep when they wake or when going through a light sleep cycle. There are other methods than just CIO, which include shush and pattting or just waiting a few minutes to see if he’ll re-settle himself. If he wakes crying, try to wait a bit more each night before going in. It may be the case where he just expects that you will come in right away.

      @Nikki, see my answer above to Jenn. It would be similar for your situation too. If he’s currently feeding more than he was before at night, it could be that he’s going through a growth spurt or he may not be getting enough during the day. Feeding him if you feel he is hungry is certainly okay, just try to unlatch him before he’s fully asleep so he can then fall asleep on his own. This will help to avoid a feeding sleep association.

  3. Definitely agree with all the moms – it CAN be a mixture and you don’t have to follow any method PERFECTLY. Just do what feels right. If it isn’t working, try something else. I believe in the Sears’ (AP) approach to parenting. It worked for us. We weren’t 100%, but pretty close. We did sleep train (limited crying, NOT cry it out) at about 12 months. I will say that the AP approach is demanding…and reality sometimes doesn’t allow parents to do everything they might like to. So, as my friend who is a mom of 4 says, “sometimes we just shoot for ‘good enough…PERFECT has gone out the window!” 🙂

  4. My husband and I put AP and happiest baby on the block in a blender with some other things. We carry them in a wrap quite often til they can walk and help them imporve distances they can go. I breastfed for 14 and 13 months and plan to go atleast 1 year w/my newest due Valentines. We limit crying, positivly discipline (as long as I can keep my cool:) I was and AM prepared for the birth experience and I am great w/newborn care, I cloth diaper and am making my own cloth diapers for the kids, I am a SAHM. BUT We put them into their own bed ASAP it just isn’t safe for our family I wake up every couple of months or so with bruises because BOTH my husband and flail in our sleep he sleeps REALLY deep and when we tried the co-sleep thing our son got elbowed REALLY good- he was fine but woke up terrified(so did we) If ALL ELSE FAILS like when teething or sick I will sleep propped and hold them to sleep or keep a barrier aganst the side of the bed so they won’t fall off but the “safest” center spot is a no go zone in our bed so its tricky. Safety of the new one and our sleep is much more important than trying to sleep WITH them 🙂 Kudos if it works for you but it just doesn’t mesh well with our situation. My son just turned 3 and he started telling me recently I’m a good mommy and smiles like he is at total peace and hugs and kisses me so I think it can and does work 🙂

  5. Yes! Mix parenting styles for WHAT WORKS FOR YOU!! As mothers and parents we can put so much pressue on ourselves to fit into a certain category 100% (Attachment Parenting, Cry-It-Out, etc). But the reality is that we all have to mix and match parenting styles and tricks because THERE ARE NO MICROWAVE BABIES!! We cannot simply read the instructions on the back of a box and pull out a perfectly temperatured (or in this case tempered) child a few minutes later because we pressed the right buttons. Each child is different and must be loved and taken care of in the way that is right for him/her.

    As a mother of two, I realized this especially with my second. So different the second time around, right? I use almost all of the AP parenting styles (exclusive breastfeeding, babywearing, limit crying, parents are primary or exclusive caretakers, co-sleeping), but we mix in different things too. With Elias (4 months), my second, he starts out in his crib when he goes to sleeps and then when he wakes up I bring him to bed with me to nurse (I also get more sleep). If he falls back asleep there untill we are BOTH comfortable, he can sleep there…otherwise, it’s into his swing or his crib. He also rides in a stroller sometimes with his sister either because it’s more convenient for me or because we are running in the jogging stroller. If he really puts up a fuss, I strap him into the Ergo Baby or Moby Wrap.

    With my first, Evangeline, I STRESSED OUT all the time because every time she cried I freaked out, thinking that I was a bad mom and she would sufer long term consequences because of crying. After a while, I figured out that certain things were mutually beneficial to us and helped her sleep better and be happier. She moved permanently into her own crib at 4 months. We both slept better. However, I will say that I wish I had still co-slept with her a bit after that because by 6 months she WOULD NOT sleep in our bed for anything no matter what. Kind of a bummer cause it’s really great convenient and great sometimes.

    My point is, I really don’t think Dr. Sears meant his philosophy to be crazy rigid or make parents feel guilty. I love his philosophy and follow the guidelines because I believe it makes me a better mother and my kids are just happier. But I’m not a Nazi about it (for lack of a better word). We have strollers, we have cribs, we use them. I pump and Elias takes a bottle when I go to my part-time job. These things do not make me a bad parent. You have to do what works for your family and for your children. All parties involved need to be happy with the situation.

    That said, I LOVE LOVE LOVE this website and all it’s helpful advice. Thank you!! Thank you for welcoming discussion and thought-provoking articles. I whole-heartedly agree with you when you say that there is no one right method for every child. This applies here also. I advocate strongly for Attachment Parenting, but not to the point of making people feel guilty or insufficient.

    @Valerie, I love what you said and I say it all the time: FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS!! They are there for a reason. If co-sleeping, wearing your child feel right to you, do it. YOu won’t spoil them. If sleeping separately feels right to you, do that, and don’t feel guilty. We are all doing the best we can and it’s time we let off ourselves a bit.

  6. I think you can absolutely mix AP and sleep training. I did-I’m sure that there are some things I do with my 21 month old that might be frowned upon by people who prefer a more structured sleep approach, but my baby is happy, healthy, and rested. I just followed my instincts. The most challenging times were her first few months and then the onset of teething. I bought a co-sleeper that she wouldn’t sleep in for almost 4 months (if she did, it was periodically), she slept and napped in our bed (a king-we used foam bumpers for nap time)-it may have had lots to do with the fact that I had returned to work and my mom/sister were not consistent (although very loving) with her nap times and locations. Somewhere between 4-6 months, she began to fall asleep nicely in her co-sleeper at night. I began laying her for naps in her crib-it would come after a feeding, but she was usually awake when I laid her down.

    By 6 months, I was able to put her in her crib (in her own room) for sleep at night. I had a very strong intuition that she was ready. She had begun laying down in her crib for nap time with a very content demeanor-she would play and chat happily with the birdies on her bumper as I left the room. Sure enough, she was ready. There were a few sessions of tears (the longest lasting 15 minutes)-but, she would fall asleep and stay asleep right after. The crying lasted for 2 weeks at the most and it was sporadic.

    I know that I did the right thing for both of us. I very much believe that sleeping next to us for the first few months “trained” her on how to sleep very soundly through the night and also gave her the impression that bedtime was a good thing. As a nursing mother, it was the best thing for me-I could nurse her almost without either of us waking up-I was not exhausted-I just had normal amount of tiredness for mommyhood. Nowadays, she sleeps 11-12 hours at night and naps for 2-3 and she still has a very welcoming attitude to her nap and bedtime.

    Will it work with another child? I’m not sure-I’ll wait until I get to know that child and their needs and then find a balance with mine and my husband’s.

    • @Valerie Thank you so much for sharing what worked for you and chiming into the discussion! It sounds like you found a great combination for your daughter.

      @Elisabeth I couldn’t agree more about the “microwave” babies. What a great analogy! Thank you for chiming in and saying how much you love the website. It means a lot!

      @Sarah Thank you for commenting. Awww! Your 3-year old sounds like a sweetheart. It definitely sounds like you’ve found the right “mix” (from the blender) of parenting styles and works well for your family. Thank you for sharing with us!

      @Lana So true about “good enough” versus “perfect.” I had to learn that early on that shooting for “perfect” sleep for my eldest was a pipe dream, so I shot for “good enough” to the point that I knew he was happy and healthy. He could not function without enough sleep. He still can’t function as well without enough, but he’s thriving SO much and I’m so happy for him. Thank you so much for chiming in!

      @Kate I so agree with you when you say “…I realized it’s about instinct, intuition, flexibility and balance…” As new moms I don’t think we trust our instincts enough and sometimes they can make problems (like me and rocking my baby to sleep that just became a “problem”), but they do guide us a lot as we become more confident in our motherhood (and fatherhood for the fathers out there). Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

      @Lisa Thank you for sharing what worked for you. As a breastfeeding and pumping mom I give you super kudos for exclusively pumping for a year! I don’t know if I could have done that, because pumping was such a chore to me (I did do it part-time for 11-12 months, but…)! You deserve a medal in my book. 😉

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