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Posts from the ‘Sleep’ Category

The Perils of Attachment Parenting

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of writing an opinion piece for The Atlantic. I discuss the controversial topic of “attachment parenting” and why I think a philosophy of putting children’s needs above parents’ can be a slippery slope. I’ve never been a fan of any one parenting technique. I prefer to use a more simple, “back to basics” approach where we expect more out of our kids. Manners, respect and boundaries aren’t a thing of the past.

Extremes like on-demand breastfeeding can take their toll on parents and children alike.

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I could tell from the dad’s voice that he was at the end of his tether. He hadn’t slept in eight months and was utterly spent, all the time. He would fall asleep at his desk or neglect his work. He and his wife always fought and they hadn’t had sex in nearly five months. “What can I do?” he begged me.

I have been a nanny and parenting consultant all of my professional life. Often friends of the families I work for will ask me for advice. The dad on the phone was the friend of a former employer. After asking him a few questions, I knew immediately what the problem was.

The dad and his wife had decided to try “attachment parenting” with their newborn son. That meant they slept in bed with their son every night, fed him milk every time he cried, and carried him everywhere they went in a baby sling. Though the intentions behind the philosophy are wonderful—let’s raise secure, attached, emotionally healthy children—attachment parenting is an unsustainable model. I am an absolute proponent of meeting a baby’s needs—and especially to meeting every need as soon as you can in those first couple of fragile weeks. And some elements of attachment parenting—such as sleeping in the same room as a newborn (but not in the same bed), and baby-wearing when it’s convenient—are great. But like so many trends that catch on through social media and word-of-mouth, it’s gotten out of balance. And like many well-intentioned practices, when taken to an extreme, it loses all value.

One of the tenets of attachment parenting is that you breastfeed a child on demand. That can lead to a habit where a child will snack—eating a little bit many times throughout the day. It’s much harder to get the baby on a schedule when he’s snacking constantly, and it’s hard for the mom to get anything done, let alone take care of her own needs, while feeding her baby all the time. I also fear that breastfeeding on demand can limit the role of other caregivers. If the baby is eating so frequently, he probably just wants his mother. This limits the potential involvement of dads and non-breastfeeding parents. And though it might seem to make life easier when you don’t need to worry about feeding schedules and having bottles ready, it means the mother must be available to the baby 24/7. That is simply not sustainable. It often means that when a child cries, the first thing he gets is the breast as an offer of comfort, so he doesn’t learn other ways to self-soothe. Nighttime feeding on demand disrupts parents’ and babies’ sleep. If parents set a precedent that nighttime is not mealtime, and feed the baby when he’s hungry but not every hour or so for comfort, children can be sleeping through the night by the time they’re four months old. This leads to a happier and more content baby, not to mention much happier and more rested parents.

Attachment parenting advocates would say that’s one reason mom and baby should sleep together. When the baby wants to eat, the mother can just roll over and feed him. Aside from the safety concerns with co-sleeping, babies do not learn to sleep on their own when they’re snuggled up with their parents. They become used to sleeping with a warm body and heartbeat next to them, and they will come to depend on that. The same is true for constant baby-wearing. It’s hard for a child to be put down alone on a blanket when she’s used to being held all the time. And it’s hard to get anything done—let alone be intimate with your partner—if there’s constantly a baby on your chest.

Attachment parenting encourages responding to your baby immediately each time he cries, or better still, before he cries. But parents don’t get a chance to learn their child’s different cries if they always pre-empt the crying. Is your child hungry? Gassy? Tired? Soiled? Parents learn to develop an ear for their baby’s distinct cries. But in an attachment model, the parents run at the slightest fuss, never giving them the opportunity to recognize their child’s needs.

Babies will often put themselves back to sleep if they’re given the chance—but these children never get the chance to self-soothe, to calm themselves down, one of the most important tools a child can develop at an early age. I know eight-year-olds who can’t go on sleepovers because they can’t leave their mother’s bed.

Some people argue that throughout history, all over the world, parents have kept their children by their side at all times. Yet our Western culture hardly resembles these cultures. (Did these parents have commutes and nine-to-five jobs?) Parents need to be able to focus at work, not be sleep-deprived, and devote their affection and attention to their kids when they get home.

Perhaps what’s most concerning to me about attachment parenting, though, is the thread that runs through each of these practices—sharing beds, feeding on demand, keeping the baby close at all times. It is a philosophy of putting children’s needs above parents’, all the time. Parents are at their best when they’ve taken care of themselves—when they’ve had a decent night’s sleep, when they’ve had a chance to connect with their partner, and when they’ve had the opportunity to move around baby-free.

When parents begin a pattern of meeting their child’s every need at the expense of their own, it sticks. It’s hard to pop out of that mindset when your six-year-old wants another cup of milk even though you’ve just sat down for dinner, or when your 10-year-old is eager to add yet another activity to his schedule that would require you to drive across town at rush hour. I’m not suggesting that parents be selfish or ignore their child’s needs, but rather, a balance. Children who grow up seeing that mom and dad are individuals who have needs, too, learn that there is nothing wrong with a little independence, a little patience, and a little self-reliance.

How Daylight Savings Affects Your Child

Before you go to bed tonight make sure to turn your clocks back one hour. Gaining an extra hour surely sounds nice to exhausted parents, but don’t be fooled. Using that extra hour to let you and your child sleep in can throw off their entire sleep pattern.

One hour in my day goes by so quickly I would never think it could have that big of an affect, but to a child it’s a significant change. Daylight savings time can adversely affect your child because when their sleep cycle is disrupted so is their mood.

So how do you transition your child to the time change and avoid the crankiness? If you want to let them sleep an extra hour (because you’ll surely want to), don’t! You can let them sleep an extra 30 minutes, but it’s important to get them up and on track. Chances are they’ll be up too early. Encourage them to stay in bed, even if they aren’t tired they can rest until it’s time to get up.

You need to keep their bedtime, wake time, and naps consistent. Establishing a sleep routine is hard enough, but now there is something disrupting that precious time. Even though the clock will say differently, don’t let your children go to sleep an hour later. That one hour is a big change for a child, so gradually push it by 15-30 minute intervals.

If their bedtime is 8 PM, put them in bed at 7.15 or 7.30 pm and let their body wind down. Read extra books or snuggle. Keep their bedtime routine the same-make sure it’s a calm environment so they understand it’s almost time for sleep.

It can take children anywhere from a few days to a week to adjust to the fall time change. This is because a child’s body clock doesn’t follow an actual clock, it is set by light and dark patterns. That is how their brains cue them. This is why DST can be confusing to them. Pay attention to their internal clock. You don’t want to miss the window when their sleepiness peaks.

Just take into account ahead of time that the change isn’t easy for them. It is much easier as an adult so it can sometimes be hard for you to relate. They will be getting less sleep, but only for a short period of time, so bare with them. Crankiness is normal.

Most importantly remember the importance of sleep. A good nights sleep for a toddler is necessary. Don’t stray from their bedtime routine.

Break out the rain boots and jackets and welcome your child to fall. Leaf piles and puddles, how exciting to be a child!

Winding Down Your Evening: Getting Your Kids to “Unplug”

Does your child constantly complain of being tired? Well, maybe they aren’t “winding down” properly at night. This can greatly disrupt their sleep cycle and ability to have quality sleep.

You can’t expect to say “Bedtime!” and your child to effortlessly fall asleep. Children need time to relax both before naptime and bed. Overstimulation is a problem many of us are facing with our children. This relates to our last post on screen time because technology hinders the time it takes for your child to calm.

It’s important to establish a “winding down routine” which will be different for each specific child. Infants and toddlers are typically more stimulated and restless than your teen so they may require a longer winding down period. This all depends on their age and the temperament they are experiencing that day.

For example, you can recognize signs that tell you when your infant is tired because they may yawn or be fussy. An infant could take less than ten minutes to calm down because you can see they are obviously ready for a nap, while a toddler could take up to a half hour just to calm their brain.

Interesting fact: Around 9 mos. a baby develops the ability to fight sleep! Oh no :/

Different techniques work for different children. Some suggestions include bathing your child prior to sleep. Try using lavender scented oils or salts in their warm bath. Try giving your baby a massage. Coconut and green apple are also soothing scents. Rubbing their back is also helpful. Read quietly in bed – try a story about bedtime – or listen to music quietly or sing to them.

It’s important when winding down to have a routine. TURN OFF ALL TECHNOLOGY!!

Electronic stimulation is the absolute worst for producing a positive sleep environment. Not only does it amp your child’s brain up, but their brain continues to pump long after the electronics are off. Give them at least a half an hour without tech, but an hour is even better.

Playing an intense game on your iPad is going to take longer for your child’s brain to adapt to relax mode. The light emitted from electronic devices actually decreases the ability for your brain to produce melatonin – the chemical that signals you to fall and stay asleep.

This down time is SO important! Use it to bathe and pick out clothes for the next day. It’s one less thing on your and your child’s mind at bedtime. Not to mention, your morning will go smoother.

Speaking of Marriage

Winifred M. Reilly, M.A., MFT