THE ROLE OF ATTACHMENT

IN SLEEP

How to create the perfect balance between a healthy attachment with your baby and helping them sleep soundly

It’s February, the month of love, so what better way to think about love than the special bond you and your baby can create together to form a lifelong relationship built on trust, affection and security?

Did you know that oxytocin, often referred to as the love hormone, has a huge role to play in how securely your baby bonds with you? Levels of oxytocin in a mother are extremely high during birth to help establish contractions and after to help breastmilk flow, and it is so strong that it is even sometimes used synthetically to induce labour.

It’s not just for mums though – research shows that levels of oxytocin are just as high in dads during the months after their baby is born.

The way you interact with your baby during the early months is so crucial to their emotional development, and oxytocin continues to nurture this special bond through these every day interactions including holding, talking singing and playing with your baby.

For many parents considering sleep training, there is uncertainty over the impact it can have on the attachment bond each parent has with their child. The great news is that research shows there is a balance to be found between forming and building this parent-child attachment relationship, and establishing healthy sleep foundations.

What is attachment?

Attachment can be defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond between two people in which each seeks closeness and security. Babies and children can form multiple attachments, but the strongest attachment will be with the primary caregiver who has provided close, responsive care during the crucial infancy stage.

The first 2 years of a child’s life are the most critical for forming attachments, with the closest bonds forming gradually from pre-birth until around 18-24 months. From around the age of 2 years, most children start to become less dependent on their primary caregiver, but will seek out this relationship in times of need.

Attachment theory was first theorised in the 70’s by psychologist John Bowlby. He discovered children that were both securely and insecurely attached displayed distinct behaviours that reflected their attachment type. Parents that follow an authoritative approach are most likely to achieve a secure attachment with their child, which typically includes a high level of responsiveness to their emotional cues, and a warm, loving environment.

Children with at least one secure attachment benefit from increased emotional intelligence, social skills and more robust mental health. On the whole there is an increased positive impact on their psychosocial, neurological, emotional and physiological development. With an increased sense of security, they learn to use their caregiver as a base from which they can then confidently explore the world, leading to more independence as they grow.

Conversely, children without that security are far more likely to be less independent, lack trust in others due to an inconsistent or neglectful parental approach, and can find it difficult to form attachments with others even into adulthood. There is an increased chance of mental health issues, as well as behavioural issues such as ADHD.

The link between attachment and sleep

In recent years there’s been a huge increase in research focussing on the link between attachment and sleep. Not only are there short term benefits, but unsurprisingly, there are lots of long term benefits too.

Good sleep depends on a secure attachment. Research shows there are significant associations between attachment security and sleep efficiency, as well as between attachment resistance and sleep problems.

Bedtime separation is easier with a securely attached child. The process of separating at night time for sleep is likely going to activate attachment behaviour, which is where attachment relationships are going to present themselves as either sleep contentment or sleep problems.

 

A lifetime of better sleep. Researchers in a study in 2014 concluded that there is a possible lifelong relationship between individual attachment style and sleep.

Attachment can be nurtured in the day, so you can separate at night. Crucially, creating a secure attachment for the benefit of good sleep (and beyond!) doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the context of sleep. You can nurture attachment relationships during the day, and still aim for a good night’s sleep.

Is there such a concept as too attached?

Secure attachment is clearly beneficial not only for sleep but for development as a whole. However, can there be too much of a good thing? A recent study looked at this exact concept and it supports much of the new wave of research suggesting that there is a balance to be found between nurturing attachment and also achieving good sleep habits. They concluded:

It’s an interesting concept to consider, especially when the large majority of parents I meet are trying to achieve just that. It was also my biggest quest when I became a parent 6 years ago. So can you create a secure attachment with your child whilst also trying to achieve independent sleeping with your baby or toddler?

What does the research say?

Luckily, there are many clues within the research to help guide us towards the right balance between attachment and sleep, with lots of practical tips too. Here’s my top 5 takeaways to achieve the perfect balance:

Respond quickly when they are upset, step back when they aren’t. Researchers in 2018 found that when parents responded quickly to distress calls (i.e. hungry cries), there was a steeper decline in night wakings. However, it’s not just about responding quickly to every noise. They also found that when parents interfered too much to non-distress calls (i.e.normal baby noises, including squeaks, grunts and general fussing), babies showed a slower rate of sleep regulation. They concluded for optimal sleep, responding quickly when your baby actually signals they need you, but taking a step back when they are awake or fussing during sleep can strike the perfect balance. 

Consistency is key. Babies and children are always at their happiest when they know what to expect, and this is also true in the research on attachment. Your parenting style may vary to others, but as long as your child knows where they stand, they will thrive. Choose an approach that you are comfortable with and stick with it. It also helps to be consistent with bedtime routines and sleep cues, as well as responding consistently.

Don’t be afraid of boundaries. It can be quite daunting when thinking about attachment and wanting to be responsive, yet also maintaining authority as a parent. The good news is that it’s actually permissive parenting styles where children don’t have any boundaries that are likely to cause behavioural sleep issues. So you can be confident in implementing age-appropriate boundaries and having the expectation that these can be followed by your child. Further research also found that having boundaries for sleep doesn’t negatively impact on attachment relationships. 

Bed-sharing isn’t compulsory for a secure attachment. Whilst co-sleeping is a lovely way of getting more sleep during the early months and beyond, it isn’t a necessity when it comes to creating that special bond with your baby. Research conducted in 2016 found that physical closeness isn’t necessary for improved infant sleep so long as emotional availability is high. So if your aim is to sleep separately, you can confidently start to distance yourself during settling strategies or overnight (being mindful of Safe Sleep Guidelines) as long as you maintain a responsive and emotionally sensitive approach.

A secure attachment is key in reducing long-term sleep issues. Babies of Mums with an insecure-avoidant attachment style are at a higher risk of developing sleep difficulties and longer bedtimes. So creating a secure attachment is key to reducing longer term sleep issues and disrupted bedtimes.

It’s all about balance

So can you really have the best of both worlds? 

It seems the answer is a resounding yes! For sleep and all-round development, the research heavily supports the importance of establishing a secure attachment through a strong bond between you and your baby during early infancy. Yet in more recent research, there’s also a good degree of evidence that shows you can also work towards good sleep habits with routines and independent sleep should you wish to, without fearing a negative impact on the attachment relationship. 

Ready for more sleep, but not sure how to get it? Get in touch for a free 15 minute assessment call. 

Blogged by Emma Osborne, Paediatric Sleep Specialist & Mum to one little boy who loves to be attached to his Mumma!

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The Role of Attachment in Sleep

by Feb 9, 2022Psychology of Sleep0 comments