The Dangers of Sleep-training

A monumental event happened in our home last night: My almost six-year-old daughter, my oldest, came to me sometime in the middle of the night after a scary dream to ask if she could sleep in my bed for the night. Half asleep, I pulled a pillow next to me and spread my blanket over the two of us. Her brother and her sister never stirred.

To you, this doesn’t seem that extraordinary. Kids have bad dreams. Parents (should) soothe their children’s fears and help them get back to sleep.

The reason this is a big deal is because this is the first time that she has ever come to me when distressed at night. See, when she was a baby, before I learned about Attachment Parenting and the importance of responding with sensitivity during sleep, particularly at night, I…sigh…sleep-trained her.

I am still haunted by her crying. This was about the time when I spanked her. It was a confusing time for me and will always be a hard time for me to look back on, but I believe that my passion about Attachment Parenting was made all that much stronger because I know how damaging not parenting with attachment in mind can be and how long it can take to repair a relationship built upon control rather than trust.

Now, I understand that all children are different and some are naturally more resilient than others. But, likewise, some are more impressible than others – they can be greatly impacted by certain parenting approaches in a positive or adverse way – and early experiences can be especially influential. And I don’t think any parent, or professional for that matter, will know which babies will be naturally more resilient or more negatively affected than others by, say, sleep-training. My oldest daughter was profoundly affected. We had coslept from the time she came home from the hospital until about 10 months old, when I tried sleep-training during a very vulnerable time in my life, for about a year, before I fully embraced Attachment Parenting.

During this year, sure, she slept through the night, in her own bed, in her own room. But she also never came to me when she needed me. She would wake up crying because of an ear infection or vomiting from stomach upset, and because she had been “trained” to stay in bed, she did.

It took me years of working to repair that attachment bond with her that I had lost when I bent to cultural pressure to sleep-train and spank for that year. Years. Years, during which time she laid in bed after scary dreams or thunderstorms trying to will herself to sleep. Years, during which time I would burst into her room after hearing her gasping for breath during an asthma attack because she had been trained to stay in bed.

Ever since she was 22 months old, when I threw out the culturally popular parenting advice and returned back to the Attachment Parenting principles that I started my parenting journey with originally, I invited her to my bedroom every night. Sometimes, she would sleep on a crib mattress or sleeping bag on the floor of my room. Every once in a while, she’d come into the bed next to me. Most nights, though, she would go to her room. And I honored that choice, always reminding her that she could come to me no matter what and no matter whether I was sleeping or not. Her sister coslept every night with me, and I hoped that would show her that she could, too, if she wanted to. But she didn’t come to me reliably, and I worked to deepen our attachment bond.

Thankfully, I am a light sleeper and wake to the slightest noise from a child’s room that could indicate she needs me. I shudder to think what could have happened on the nights of asthma attacks if I didn’t hear her. I would much rather have a child sleep in the same room as me than away in her own room. The bonding is amazing – what a way to extend closeness around the clock, especially in our busy, modern lives – but it’s also a matter of safety. I remember a time with both my younger children when I woke to them, as babies, choking on spit-up.

Children become ill and scared and in need of assurance and attention from their parents at night just as they do during the day. It’s foolish to think that parenting ends at bedtime and that children who are encouraged to come to us when they skin their knee playing outside during the day are then discouraged to come to us when they have a scary dream at night.

There are all different ways to parent during sleeptime. What’s important is to be responsive to your child at night, even if you have to sacrifice some sleep. Some families choose bedsharing, others prefer roomsharing, and some like their child to be another room. It depends on the age of the child and the family circumstance, as well as each child’s preferences. What bothered me about my oldest child choosing to sleep in her room by herself was not that she was making that choice, but that she felt that she couldn’t come to me if she needed reassurance. A child may choose to sleep alone, and that’s perfectly OK if the child feels comfortable waking Mom or Dad when he needs their attention. The point is for the parent to be available and emotionally sensitive.

Beware of any “expert” that says that Attachment Parenting and sleep training can be combined. There have been some posts out in the blogosphere lately on this topic, as well as that Attachment Parenting families can spank and stay in line with the principles. Basically, any parenting strategy that involves controlling for the sake of being in control and not taking into consideration the child’s emotional needs and developmental stage, as well as viewing children as having equal rights as adults is not Attachment Parenting. If an adult wouldn’t spank a fellow adult, then it’s not appropriate to do with a child. If an adult wouldn’t ignore a fellow adult in emotional distress, then it’s not appropriate to do with a child.

The following two tabs change content below.
Rita Brhel
Rita Brhel is a stay-at-home mother to three children. She is also a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor for the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska, the Publications Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International, the managing editor of the Attached Family magazine, an API Support Group Leader, PSI Postpartum Support Coordinator, Sidelines High-Risk Pregnancy Peer Counselor.
Rita Brhel

Latest posts by Rita Brhel (see all)

7 thoughts on “The Dangers of Sleep-training

  1. A beautiful, thoughtful, well-written piece. I’ve done the same, and been in the same position. I remember my oldest, not quite a year old yet, pulling himself to stand in his crib, screaming and crying until he threw up multiple times while I sat outside his door, hugging my knees and crying on my own because I could not believe that was what “parenting” was supposed to be. Because of that – and the four days of jaundice we fought when he was not quite three days old, during which he was hospitalized, where I was told not to breastfeed and not to hold or touch my baby for fear that the UV light in the incubator wouldn’t get to him – I still have little to no attachment with him. He is just barely over five years old, and I still don’t quite know or understand this child. This beautiful, brilliant little boy sometimes doesn’t seem like mine. 
    And I HATE it.

  2.  It  can be heartbreaking when we are honest enough to admit our mistakes, especially when it comes to things we’ve done to burden our children. Thankfully, we can rebuild ourselves, and the trust our children place in us with thoughtful choices and love. I have made too many poor choices to list, but the desire to raise my children in a peaceful and fear free environment always seems to persist. I am so grateful that you shared your story and hope that it is cathartic for you to do so. I honor your full circle and think it is AWESOME that you  found your way back to Attachment Parenting!! Onward and upward!

  3. I can remember when my oldest was seven months and kept waking up in his crib and wanting me throughout the night. Looking back on it, I know he was afraid of being by himself at night and he had terrible reflux and unknown allergies, but I listened to his pediatrician who told me to let him cry and just “throw-up without nursing him again and he would eventually not have anything left in his stomach and would learn that night-time was for sleeping.” She told my husband to go in there and change his bedding and lay him down to sleep again until he figured out that his crying and throwing up were useless and he would stop “controlling us.” I can remember being sick to my stomach listening to him those first few nights, but after a few nights he slept through the night (or so I thought).

     We made MANY mistakes in our parenting our four children (I could write a book). He is now eleven and has major sleep problems as well as major anger issues that his nine-year-old brother is following suit with (I made even more mistakes with this one!). My younger two have fewer issues, but they do have anxiety.

    I was the “good Christian” trying to raise my children the “Biblical way” through spanking and control. Well, I just found out that we are pregnant with #5 (my youngest will be 6 when baby is born) and I want to raise this baby completely different. My husband is still VERY controlling and harsh, but that doesn’t mean I have to be. I have decided that I will NEVER spank this new child and I am going to follow the attachment parenting practices as best as I can even if my husband spanks and doesn’t agree with me (hopefully he will eventually agree with me though).

     When I started out parenting I was sensitive to my child and “understood” him, but after forcing myself into what people said I should do, I learned to ignore the needs of my children and became harsh and unnatural with them. I suppressed my natural instincts…until I had my fourth child – my first girl. It was then that all my instincts came back to me because I could relate to her so much and she looked just like me.

     If my husband spanked her or was harsh with her everything within me cried out for justice and my mama bear came out to protect her. Then I read a book called, “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” and again was influenced by the “Christian” way of parenting. The cover of the book is so nice, but inside it is misleading at best. We started spanking often again out of fear of  not “obeying God”. According to the book, if we do not spank our children at EVERY sign of disobedience (even if just a wrong attitude in their heart) then we as parents are disobeying God. We explained why we were spanking them and explained that we had to obey God and He required us to spank them (I cringe now as I think about it).

    I have since come to believe that the whole “spanking/rod thing” that so many Christians believe is commanded by God really isn’t what they think it is.  I have been sitting under the feet of some very Christian people for the past couple of years that believe in grace-based parenting and do not recommend spanking children and I know this to be true because it sits well with my spirit. All the other ways of parenting that I’ve tried have gone against what felt right and natural to me.

    Now, to get my husband on board (who has autism and doesn’t like change, but does need to be in control of everything…sigh…).

  4. I love your reflective process and your honesty Rita – thanks so much for sharing this beautiful, sensitive and honest story. Your words are so powerful. You show clearly how the social environment and the voices/opinions of ‘experts’ are so compelling for us human beings.  A great reason why care providers have to engage in ongoing education and ensure they are up to date and woman centred. So good you came to realise the truth of what babies/children need. Some of us take much longer than you did.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I too sleep trained my eldest, and am haunted by the effects daily. For a while when I first started on my medication, the dopey effect caused me not to wake as easily, instead of coming to me when he woke he’d simply sit and cry in his bed of a morning til my alarm went off. The past few days, he’s come out of his room and stood at our door, this to me is progress. I tell him every day/night he can come to me whenever he needs me, that he can come out of his room whenever he needs to. The difference between him and his fully attached little brother is astounding. The progress my eldest has made since I made the switch is slow but impressive. He’s just 3, so hopefully the emotional damage can be repaired. Doubt I’ll ever forgive myself for those early years. 

  6. Thank you for this important post.  I have not done sleep training.  However, when my 3 year old son wakes me up in the middle of the night to play or cook for him because he is hungry, I do get pretty cranky.  Your post reminded me that how I respond to him waking me up in the night has an impact on him, and may make him reluctant to wake me for something that I would consider important.

  7. Beautifully said. Thank you for sharing your story, and reminding us that those connections can always be mended with love 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Blog Updates!

**This page may contain affiliate links. This blog is for informational and educational purposes only. Read full disclosure here.