What Does Attachment Have To Do With Sleep?

At My Connected Motherhood, we spend a lot of time talking about how we provide attachment based sleep support and provide education and guidance to make transitions that are rooted in attachment. 

But what does attachment really have to do with sleep?

The more families we support, the more clear it becomes to us that the guidance we provide to empower parents has more to do with attachment and relationships, than it has to do with sleep at all.

When supporting families, it is still very important that we always start with the foundations of sleep. We first need to take a step back to make sure all of the fundamentals are in place so that we know we are making it as easy as possible for our children to go to sleep, instead of simply treating sleep as a behaviour that needs to be "fixed". Taking a holistic approach to sleep means ensuring that the environment is conducive to sleep, that sleep pressure is building up enough (but not too much) to allow for a restorative rest, that natural rhythms are being supported and that routines are in place to make transitions smoother and more predictable. It also means that we address any medical concerns that could be making it more difficult for your child to go to sleep and stay asleep. 

Once we know the foundations of sleep are in place, then it is all about relationship, emotion, and attachment. Sleep is a vulnerable state to be in so it is our goal to guide parents in making them feel as connected to their children as possible so that sleep seems a little less scary for their little ones. We want children to feel secure in their relationship with us so that they can sleep without worrying about their needs being met. The more we focus on attachment and connection, the easier sleep typically becomes.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where independence is praised, a society where it is too often seen as a mistake to allow our children to need us or to be dependent on us. We have become obsessed with our children not needing us, obsessed with them being able to do things without any support from us.

What we don’t spend enough time talking about is the fact that dependence is what actually fosters independence.

By true definition, attachment is the drive or relationship characterized by the pursuit or preservation of proximity. Basically what this means, is that attachment is an instinct that makes our children want to be close to us. It is wired into their being, it is natural and instinctive for them to want to be near us, to search us out.

So if nature’s design is for children to want to be close to us, why do we spend so much time fighting this desire? Why do we push our children into separation? Why do we rush our children into being apart from us?

When we fight this natural drive for relationship, we risk unintentionally making sleep more difficult for our family. When we stop focusing on meeting our children’s attachment needs, the more likely they are to seek us out. We are more likely to see concerns around sleep including bedtime battles, frequent wakes calling for connection or nocturnal visits for example.

If instead we tune into our children’s attachment needs by inviting them to depend on us, we can take an entirely different approach to sleep. Children have a natural hunger to be close to us, but when our children feel attached, they will not have to search out proximity and connection with us in the same way.

When it comes to sleep, nighttime is often the biggest separation that our children face. By focusing on our attachment relationship with our children, we can make sleep - and the separation that comes with it - easier to hold on through. This is why we never use separation based techniques or strategies that trick your child into being alone. Separation for our children is one of, if not THE hardest thing they have to face.

So, the question then becomes, how do we make sure that our children feel attached to us? How do we make sure that our children feel safe and secure in the relationship with us, so that sleep becomes less vulnerable and alarming?

Attachment is designed for our children to be dependent on us so that we can take care of them and lead them through growth and learning. Children need to trust us to meet their needs, to depend on us. When they are attached to us they allow us to take care of them, to take the lead. What is important to understand, is that we need to be leaders without relying on techniques or strategies - we need to focus on our relationship.

So how do we do this? We start by giving them more than they are asking for. We take the lead to not just meet their needs, but also anticipate these needs before they have to search out connection or closeness.

We know babies attach through the senses. So with young babies, what we really need to do is stimulate these senses. It could be the familiar scent of mom or dad, the taste of breastmilk, the contact of their head on your chest, the soothing sound of your voice as you sing a familiar lullaby, or maybe the reassurance of being able to see you so close by. As babies grow into toddlers there are other things we can do to help them feel safe and secure also. We can bridge the separation by focusing on our next connection with them. When they are old enough we can talk about things we will do together in the morning, we can give them something that smells like us, we can ensure there are pictures of us in their room, we can establish a connection with a lovey for them to snuggle, we can tell them to listen to us in the kitchen while they fall asleep so they know we are still close by. We need to give them pieces of us to hold onto until the next point of connection with us comes in the morning while also still being responsive when they need us to be at night.

There are loving limits and boundaries that need to be set around sleep to ensure that our children’s sleep needs are being met.  It is part of our role as caregivers to set these loving limits firmly but also with love and warmth. It is not on our children to decide what is best for them. It isn’t up to our children to decide what time they will go to bed. We need to make these decisions.  It is our responsibility to ensure that they are getting the restorative rest they need to develop, learn and thrive. By setting boundaries we are acting out this responsibility and when these boundaries are not in place, children will start to take the lead and will begin looking for these limits themselves.

Being in the right relationship in terms of attachment, meaning that we are taking the lead, with our children is what enables us to set these loving limits. When we are properly attached to our children it makes it possible for us to be the natural lead in the relationship. Along with an understanding of emotion to be able to support any emotional response that might arise in response to these boundaries, we can empower our children to sleep by making it clear to them that we are confident in our role as their parent, that we have full trust in ourselves to meet their sleep needs.  If we are consistently and confidently anticipating and meeting their caregiving needs, including their needs surrounding sleep, they can rest in the knowledge that we will continue to do so, that they do not need to search out a way to meet these needs themselves.

As you can see, by placing the focus on attachment, relationship and connection, rather than treating sleep as a behaviour and trying to remedy it with step by step generic solutions, we can empower our children to go to sleep from a place of love and trust and that is why attachment matters when it comes to sleep.

Sarah & Elli

Categories: Attachment, Motherhood, Sleep Without Sleep Training