Ensuring Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally

This post is the fifth in a series examining the principles of Attachment Parenting. The goal is to explore what the principle is, why it’s important, and what it looks like in different families and different homes. That last bit is where you come in! I can share how these things play out in my home, but I would truly appreciate hearing wisdom from your journey as well.

As with all of the principles of Attachment Parenting, there are a variety of different ways to “ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally.” Yet again, everything comes back to respecting the individual child’s needs. One child may sleep beautifully between both parents each night, and another may show their preference for a more well-defined space of their own. One may need an extremely specific bedtime routine in order to relax into sleep each night, and another may be happy to drift off after a book and a cuddle. There are no rules when it comes to listening to our children’s needs. For families practicing attachment parenting, ensuring safe sleep usually means two things: responding to the child’s needs no matter the hour, and choosing a sensitive sleep arrangement, whatever that may mean for the individual child. 

Responding to the child’s nighttime needs with sensitivity

According to Attachment Parenting International:

Babies and children have needs at night just as they do during the day; from hunger, loneliness, and fear, to feeling too hot or too cold. They rely on parents to soothe them and help them regulate their intense emotions. Sleep training techniques can have detrimental physiological and psychological effects. Safe co-sleeping has benefits to both babies and parents.”

The main goal of safe sleep emotionally is to remain responsive to our children, regardless of the time of day. Our children do not cease to need us simply because the sun goes down, and personally I don’t see a logical reason to be any less responsive during the nighttime hours than we would be during the day. This practice of responsiveness is often referred to as “Nighttime Parenting.”

To quote Pinky McKay, author of Sleeping Like a Baby:
Neuroscientists and clinicians have documented that loving interactions that are sensitive to a child’s needs influence the way the brain grows and can increase the number of connections between nerve cells. The Australian Association of Infant Mental Health advises: “Infants are more likely to form secure attachments when their distress is responded to promptly, consistently and appropriately. Secure attachments in infancy are the foundation for good adult mental health.” So, when you adopt the perspective that your baby’s night howls are the expression of a need, and she is not trying to “manipulate” you, and you respond appropriately (this will vary depending on your baby’s age and needs), you are not only making her smarter, but you will be hardwiring her brain for future mental health. (full article here)

Co-sleeping or choosing a sensitive sleeping arrangement

As for ensuring safe sleep physically, it’s interesting to note that even the mainstream American Academy of Pediatrics admits that, “the safest place for your baby to sleep is in the room where you sleep,” (link) and it’s true that one of the many benefits of sleeping in the same room with our babies is that it helps them to regulate their own breathing. For this reason, among others, many families choose to put their babies to sleep beside the parents’ own bed, or to bedshare, cosleeping with their child in the same bed. Great info on cosleeping herehere, and here. While this practice is common, not all attached parents find that it works for them, and that’s okay. Each family and each child is different.

As children get older, parents have to make their own individual decisions regarding sleep arrangements. From what I have seen, it appears that some children will never have trouble getting to sleep on their own and staying that way, while others will need parental support in establishing good sleep habits as they get older. What that looks like varies by family. It’s not uncommon for children to continue cosleeping well into childhood, and for those who feel comfortable with the practice, cosleeping beyond infancy has many benefits, as outlined in this fabulous, well-researched article by Dionna of Code Name: Mama, “Five Benefits to Cosleeping Past Infancy.” Since this is not practical for every family, some may start out cosleeping, but make the transition to separate sleep spaces during or after infancy. Suchada of Mama Eve talks about her own experience with creating a workable sleep solution in her post entitled, “Sleep, Crying, and Balancing Closeness with Boundaries.”

Different for everyone
In my ridiculous number of hours spent reading blogs, and my conversations with personal friends, I have seen many creative sleep arrangements among attached families. Some create a large space on the floor and everyone sleeps together, from the outest, regardless of age. Some families start out in the same bed and transition after a certain age, when night nursing stops, or simply when they feel it’s time. Others, like Shae of Yay for Home! and her family sleep across multiple beds in the same room. Some mothers sleep with their babies while the fathers sleep elsewhere and some fathers sleep with their babies while the mothers sleep elsewhere. Some families place their babies to sleep in a cosleeper, crib, or bassinet in their room, while others put their baby to sleep in another room entirely for their own reasons, and sensitively respond when they are needed.

Our sleep arrangement

On my daughter Annabelle’s first night of life, when we slept in the hospital, I kept her in my arms. She slept soundly on my chest and that was her preferred place to sleep for several days. During those early days, our family of three (the husband, the babe, and I) slept together in bed. I tried to place Annabelle in a “Close and Secure Sleeper” between us, but she wouldn’t have it. She wanted to snuggle.

As a new mother, I was a bit worried about having us all in one small space, but I quickly relaxed as I saw how incredibly aware both my husband and I were during the night. The three of us didn’t sleep together long, since my husband had to leave for the middle east when Annabelle was only ten days old. For the next seven months or so, it was just Annabelle and me. I slept on one side of her, and used a cosleeping pillow on the other. This worked wonderfully. When the husband returned, we all slept together for a month or two, but I was cramped and more awake at night from always trying to keep from waking him, and he was still being awoken. Eventually, he moved to the guest room and there he stays. This sounds awful, or at least it sounded awful to me, but with a nursing toddler, sleeping together is not the sweet, romantic act it once was and I’m okay with that. We keep different hours anyway: a night owl and a forced early riser, so we were waking one another up getting in and out of bed anyway. Everyone sleeps better this way, and the husband and I will be back to sharing a bed before we know it.

Nowadays, Annabelle goes down for her first stretch of sleep in her own bed. I work while she sleeps and depending on the time, usually take her and head to bed at her first night waking three hours or so later. This works as wonderfully as it did when she was a newborn, though she kicks my covers off now. We do our dance of nursing, stopping, rearranging, occasionally popping in to the bathroom, and so on. She is able to get all that she needs from me and I’m able to sleep mostly through the night, since she never needs to cry out for me. Currently our plan is to switch to a king size bed when we move back to the mainland, and go back to sleeping as a family then, but we’ll see. One of these nights, Annabelle just might keep on sleeping instead of waking and needing me. At that point, she’ll be in her own room, but always welcome to come to ours for anything she may need during the night.

My experience is by no means representative of all attachment parents, so please tell us: What does safe sleep look like in your house? 

3 thoughts on “Ensuring Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally

  1. Annicles

    Well, you know that my babies are far beyond the baby age and are all fiercely protective of their own bedrooms. aving said that, when Ed is working away we have a rota system for one child at a time to sleep in my bed with me! I am a very selfish sleeper and do not like any physical contact. I was always the same so the babies slept in a basket next to me. They moved into their own rooms at different ages, it just depended on the child.

    I did resort to crying it out with one child. In retrospect it was not my smartest move and I wish I had tried other things first, but I was desparately tired, and was starting to hate my 2 year old son. To be honest, it took 3 nights and he slept through the night, making me a nicer mummy and giving us a chance to make a much better and stronger relationship. Also to be honest, it has not had  a negative impact on our relationship or his sense of self or confidence or any of the other things that child developmental specialists make you feel terrible about.

  2. Melissa

    I'm sure there are things I will look back on and wish I had done differently, too. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. There are definitely times when parents need to put boundaries in place to protect their own sleep and sanity, too. Suchada/Mama Eve, whose article on the subject I linked above had some great thoughts on that. It really does all come down to listening to your individual child and their needs as well as your own, and I find in reading about your family life that you're always a great example of just that. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  3. tinsenpup

    My partner sleeps in his own space. He stays up late and has sleep apnea and we both like our own time and space, so we're all happier that way. Both children sleep with me, however – the baby beside me in bed and the ten year old in her own bed pushed up against the big bed, although she'd be in with us if she had her way. I'm guessing she'll want her own space soon enough. Attachment parenting can sometimes be a bigger or longer commitment than we expect, but it's especially important for the child who needs extra time or guidance to feel at home in the world. In my mind, the results speak for themselves.


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