When it comes to helping your child sleep through the night, what is the most effective method? Turns out it has a lot more to do with attachment and less to do with behavioral techniques or “crying it out.”
Attachment and Sleep Behaviors in Children
Of all the controversial parenting topics out there, sleep training is at the top of the list. No matter what parent you ask, they seem to have a strong stance one way of the other. Some parents view sleep training as a negative way of using behavioral interventions to force the child to adapt to the parent’s preferred sleep/wake schedule and minimizing the ability of the child to self-regulate based on his or her own internal clock. Other parents argue that regular sleep times are of critical importance and that allowing a child to learn how to self-soothe and fall back asleep on their own is key to keeping everyone in the family happy and functioning.
The bottom line? No research studies to date show any negative or positive outcomes for either path by the time the child reaches the age of 5. This means that no matter which route you choose (to sleep train, or not to sleep train) the outcomes all even out by the time your toddler reaches 5 years of age.
Researchers have begun to question why there is no difference in the children that are sleep trained and those that aren’t, and have found one possible answer:
When it comes to sleep behaviors, what matters the most is the child’s level of attachment with the primary caregiver.
Turns out that using a method of sleep training or not is not the best predictor of how well your child will sleep through the night, but your relationship with your child is.
Children whose parents define their relationship as securely attached have fewer sleep disruptions during the night and reported greater quality of sleep. The parents that define their child’s attachment style as insecure report on average more sleep disturbances, sleep resistance, and poorer sleep quality.
Secure Attachment and Sleeping Through the Night
The best way to help ensure your child will have a good night’s sleep each night is to focus on the parent-child relationship and enable the child to feel secure in his or her attachment with the primary caregiver. As a parent, your sensitivity and responsiveness to your child has a great impact on whether wakings happen during the night.
When parents are able to be emotionally available at bedtime, children feel a sense of safety and security right before they fall asleep. When children feel more secure at the onset of falling asleep, they are better able to self-soothe and fall back asleep because the sense of security has been established and persists throughout the night.
Children whose attachment styles have been categorized as insecure become more fearful upon wakings and do not feel secure enough to soothe on their own, and may begin crying for caregivers to come to the rescue. This leads to poor sleep quality as the child is awake for longer periods of time and is relying on caregivers to help him fall back asleep rather than developing these skills on his own.
How to Establish Security at Bedtime
If we now know that the child’s sense of security and safety affects his or her sleep quality, how do we as parents establish this sense of security?
The best way to help your child feel securely attached is to be responsive and reflective to your child’s emotions. Bedtime is often a rushed, stressful time for both parents and children. When children are sensing the parent’s feelings of stress, this causes the child to not feel secure. Parents that are able to focus on connecting with their child and responding to their child’s emotions are able to reduce the stress and tension for both parents and child, creating an atmosphere of safety and security.
Reflecting and validating your child’s feelings enables your child to feel more securely attached. Listening with sensitivity and openness to your child’s experiences allows you as the parent to become a co-regulator of their emotions, leading to an increased ability for the child to self-regulate and develop a sense of lasting security and safety with you.
In addition to responding to your child’s emotional needs through words of comfort and validation, establishing consistent bedtime routines also helps establish a sense of security at bedtime. Children feel safe within consistency and predictability. Regular bedtime activities and behaviors help signal to the child’s body that bedtime is coming and allows the body to begin physiologically and mentally preparing for sleep. Integrating connection-based activities between child and parent as part of the bedtime routine (such as reading a book together, brushing teeth together, laying together in bed) further establishes the feelings a security through the child’s secure attachment and connection with the parent every night before falling asleep.
Whether you choose to attempt to sleep train your child or not, research shows that the biggest factor in your child’s ability to sleep through the night is his or her connection and secure attachment with you. Focusing on the parent-child relationship and deepening the attachment lead to better sleep quality, fewer sleep disruptions, and increased ability to self-soothe and return to sleep during the night.
Having trouble with your child’s sleep behaviors? We’d love to chat. Send us a message at email@example.com or call our office (469-665-9416) to speak to one of our play therapists that can help with sleep issues and establishing secure attachments.
Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at www.headfirstdallas.com
Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or firstname.lastname@example.org