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Attachment - What It Is And How It Relates To Sleep


What do you think of when you think of attachment in relation to your baby? Are you thinking about how you feel about them? Are you thinking about how you can barely put your baby down? Maybe you are thinking it would be helpful if they were a little less attached to you!

 

One thing that many parents want is for their baby to grow up into a confident independent child. Someone who is happy to go off and explore a bit on their own, who doesn’t cling to your leg at a playgroup and who can settle in new environments like nursery or school.

 

The ideal is that this independent little person is also able to fall asleep by themselves and stay asleep or resettle by themselves at night! All those wake ups really take their toll and I am sure most new parents are dreaming of the day they get uninterrupted sleep back.

                                                  

Our Western parenting is interesting. In our drive for independence we have our children in prams, try to space out feeds and are often keen to move them to their own room and their own bed. In contrast lots of countries use more slings/wraps to keep babies close, feed frequently (easy due to the sling) and bedshare for the first years. Culturally there are huge differences in parenting across the world and we maybe look to how others are doing it for some reassurance. Often the things society tells us to do don’t sit comfortably. Lots of parents don’t feel 6 months is the right time to move their baby to another room and would prefer to keep them close for longer. Or want to respond to their baby’s needs to feeds even though others say they should be able to wait longer now.

 

Responding to your baby in the way that feels right to your instincts is rarely a bad thing – there aren’t bad habits to be worrying about when you baby is still tiny. Yes they are learning loads but is it bad? No.

 

The reason this is linked to sleep is because that is the common time people worry about creating bad habits or ‘a rod for your own back’. Because somehow parenting at night is seen as a negative and that you should maybe treat your baby differently at night to the daytime.

 

Attachment here is about your baby’s attachment to you. This includes how safe they feel with you which stems from how you respond to them. In order for a child to become independent they need a secure base to start from. A secure attachment to a caregiver.


If there is someone who always responds when they cry out a baby learns that person is a safe reliable person. If they are hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, tired, bored, scared, in pain, uncomfortable or any of the other reasons babies cry; the person comes and takes care of it. You might not always know what the problem is but you pick them up, which helps massively, and you try lots of calming things which will likely solve the problem. You are a safe and reliable person. Every time you respond to your baby when they need something that is reinforced for them.

 

If you respond to your baby well in the daytime but decide to let them cry it out overnight, you are sending some mixed messages. Sometimes you respond and sometimes you don’t. They can’t be 100% certain that you are that safe reliable person.

 

In babies who are neglected or don’t have any form of reliable caregiver there is no secure attachment, rather they show insecure attachment. They don’t have any confidence in anyone helping them when they need it. This is quite an extreme situation though. 

 

When babies have a secure attachment they have the base to become independent. They are comfortable to go and play on the other side of the room because they know that if they need you you will be there to help them. If a caregiver doesn’t consistently respond to their baby they can’t be sure whether they will be helped if they need it and so they are more likely to want to stay close. Just in case.


Responding to your baby when they need you, including during the night, isn’t a bad habit it all. It is helping them develop the secure attachment they need to help them grow into the independent little person you want them to be. Now it doesn’t mean that nursery settling will be a breeze but hopefully it will be a little easier than it might have been!

 

And if you want to know the longer term impact of this there is lots out there on attachment. If someone has an insecure attachment as a baby it can impact on their ability to forge good relationships in adulthood too. Experiences as a baby really do impact for life.

 

I do want to add a little caveat or two here; if your small person is finding it hard to settle in a new place or with new people it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Keep responding to them and focus on building attachment now. They are all different and they all have different needs at different times.

If you are panicking about the fact you leave your baby to cry because you need to pop to the toilet or you were in the shower when they woke up, or you couldn’t pull over when they cried in the car, please don’t. Every baby will have to wait at some point! This isn’t your bigger picture. The vast majority of the time you will be responding brilliantly and the very fact you are worrying about those odd times shows you must be getting it right.

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