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.
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