If you tuned into the Becoming a Sleep Consultant podcast last week, you heard my interview with Tara Dakin Sauer, LMFT, PMH-C. We discussed how to best combat the negativity around sleep training. We had so much to cover, that we actually didn’t get to discuss everything we had planned for last week, so we broke up our conversation into two interviews. This week, we are covering the differences between attachment parenting and secure attachment. We both hope you love this continuation of our prior conversation! secure attachment
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If you tuned in to the Becoming a Sleep Consultant Podcast last week, you heard my interview with Tara Dakin Sauer. We discussed how to best combat the negativity around sleep training. We had so much to cover that we actually didn’t get to discuss everything we had planned for last week, so we broke up our conversation into two interviews.
This week, we’re covering the differences between attachment parenting and secure attachment. We both hope you’d love this continuation of our prior conversation.
Jayne Havens: Hi, Tara. Welcome back. Two weeks in a row. I’m excited to chat with you again.
Tara Dakin Sauer: Yes, me too. I know there was a lot more we wanted to chat about. So I’m excited we have more time to do that.
Jayne Havens: I wanted to bring you back onto the podcast to finish up our conversation from last week, where we spoke about how to handle the negativity around sleep training. One big topic that we didn’t get to on our first conversation was how to navigate all the talk around secure attachment, and whether sleep training compromises secure attachment. Can you explain what is secure attachment, and how do parents form secure attachment with their child?
Tara Dakin Sauer: Yes, so secure attachment is a term that comes from attachment theory. This is a theory that’s based on many years of research, first by John Bowlby, then by Mary Ainsworth. They were trying to understand the different kinds of responses that babies had when they were separated from and then reunited with their parent.
Ainsworth found that babies fell into three groups: those with the secure attachment, anxious attachment or avoidant attachment. Securely attached babies were the ones who were distressed when their mother left. But when she returned, the baby would seek her attention and they were easily comforted by her. The anxiously attached babies were much more distressed, their mother leaving. And they were not easy to comfort even when the mother returned. Then the avoidant type didn’t really seem to be bothered by their mom leaving and then avoided contact with her when she returned.
This research also revealed that securely attached children tend to have parents who are consistently responsive to their needs. Whereas insecurely attached children tend to have parents who either did not respond or react to their needs, or maybe they were actively dismissive or rejecting of their needs, or interestingly, those who are inconsistent in how they responded. So even parents who responded very well sometimes but then other times didn’t, for whatever reason, also could lead to that — in secure attachment.
And so the key takeaway from the research, that it seems like many parenting approaches latched on to, was that a secure attachment is built out of this loving, trusting relationship where a caregiver is consistently responsive to a child’s needs. But the part that many parenting approaches seem to have missed was that a secure attachment with a primary caregiver means that a child has a person that they trust and there’s safe, secure base from which they can confidently go out and explore the world and gradually grow in their independence. Because secure attachment in childhood leads to adults who are capable of forming relationships that are made up of a healthy balance between dependence and independence. Whereas an insecure attachment in childhood leads to adults who swing too far in either direction. They’re either overly dependent or overly independent.
A parent helping a baby or a child or doing for a baby or a child the things that they’re not capable of doing themselves, that builds their trust and security in being dependent on their caregiver. It creates that safe base that they can come back to. A parent teaching a baby or a child how to do something that they are capable of doing themselves rather than doing it for them, when coming from a place of love and confidence in the child’s abilities, that builds the child’s self-confidence. That gives them permission to be independent.
Teaching a child a new skill is uncomfortable for them, right? It might feel challenging or scary. But when a child has that secure base, they can tolerate the discomfort in order to learn and grow. And so secure attachment does not require parents to ensure that the child is never uncomfortable.
It seems that most of the people who are very anti-sleep training, particularly under this flag of promoting secure attachment, they tend to be misconstruing either what is a need, what it means to be responsive, and what it means to respond consistently. Because as I just said, first, your child does not need you to prevent them from ever feeling uncomfortable. Your child does need sleep. Baby’s brains and bodies grow while they’re sleeping. Research shows that poor sleep negatively impacts brain development. It’s correlated with an increase in both emotional and behavioral problems. So sleep is a very important need.
As far as responding consistently — that doesn’t mean perfectly — secure attachment does not require perfection. Parents have been led to believe they have to respond immediately, perfectly 100% of the time. And so parents are getting shamed for just wanting to put their baby down while they pee or shower. But they think that they can’t because the baby will cry. “Leaving a baby to cry” or “letting a baby cry alone” ever is non-responsive parenting. That’s been equated with abuse or neglect. But being responsive doesn’t always mean literally physically or verbally responding.
Responsiveness is actually referring to the concept of attunement. Being attuned to your child means that you’re able to calmly observe and connect with them, which allows you to identify what their actual need is and respond effectively. That’s what builds the secure attachment, not just physically responding. For example, if a parent picks up their baby as soon as they cry, and they’re holding them and they’re rocking them, they’re just barely keeping the lid on their frustration. They may not be able to think clearly enough to figure out what the baby really needs. The baby probably also won’t be able to feel as connected to the parent in that moment. The baby’s relationship with the parent is the ultimate source of their reassurance, not the rocking or the shushing or whatever. It’s that relationship.
If a parent is sleep deprived and frustrated to the point where they’re struggling to really be present to patiently observe and tune in to what the baby or child is communicating, then actually taking a step back and walking away, taking a minute, letting the baby cry alone for a moment, that’s not going to damage attachment. That allows the parent to get centered and then come back and effectively co-regulate, which it turns out actually usually helps children calm much more quickly than just the act of showing up and trying to soothe them.
And so with sleep training, I think people are missing the fact that sometimes parental presence is not conducive to going to sleep. Not going in and picking up your crying baby, or not going in and sitting in the room with your toddler because they’re in process of figuring out how to fall asleep on their own — that actually is being responsive.
Jayne Havens: Yeah, I think that people, parents sometimes take that responsive word a little bit too literally, right? Sometimes being responsive isn’t going in and stopping the crying. Sometimes being responsive is being in tune with what that child needs and meeting that need, which might be a moment, space. That’s where parents are getting it wrong. I’m wondering what it would it take for a parent to compromise secure attachment with their child. If sleep training doesn’t compromise secure attachment, even if extinction, letting them cry doesn’t compromise secure attachment, what does?
Tara Dakin Sauer: Honestly, a lot. The idea of misattunements, not being attuned, that happens even in very healthy families. Those actually help build a child’s resilience. There’s research by Donald Winnicott that has led to this concept of ‘good enough parenting.’ Because it’s shown that parents actually only need to be attuned to their child somewhere between 30% and 50% of the time.
There’s also research done by Edward Tronick that supported this idea that imperfect attunement and secure attachment do actually go together. He found that in healthy relationships, a parent is truly attuned about a third of the time. Another third of the time, parents struggle to figure out what’s wrong, and they aren’t able to meet the child’s needs. We don’t understand why they’re crying. We tried all the things, and it isn’t working. And so, ultimately, the baby or child has to soothe themselves and figure it out on their own.
Then the other third of the time, which is what Tronick believe was the most important for creating secure attachment, is when misattunements are repaired. That’s when parents are not initially in tune with the child’s needs. Maybe they go in when they shouldn’t, or they don’t go in when they should. But they do the work to become attuned. And so that experience provides a safe realization of how it feels to be distressed and then have that get resolved, to have the parent miss the mark and then figure it out and come back.
That builds resilience and that builds more trust in the caregiver. It’s really about the overall pattern of responsiveness and repairing when there is misattunement. Kids don’t need perfection. They just need their parents to keep showing up, to keep learning what they need, what they don’t, to apologize and admit when we do make a mistake, when we misunderstand or when our emotions cloud our judgment.
Every single one of my therapy clients has an insecure attachment style. Every single one of them grew up in a home where heck of a lot more was going on than they were expected, to fall asleep in their own bed on their own. Thankfully, very few of them grew up in truly abusive, neglectful environments. But the main thing is their primary caregiver wasn’t there for them in ways that they really needed for their entire childhood. So years and years of misattunements without repair. That is what creates an insecure attachment.
Jayne Havens: Okay. So there’s secure attachment, and then there’s attachment theory and attachment parenting. These are not all the same thing. Can you break down the differences and help us to understand what these terms mean?
Tara Dakin Sauer: Yeah, I definitely get on this a lot. Because it’s understandably very confusing, and yes, they do not mean the same thing at all. Attachment parenting is loosely based on attachment theory but, overall, not a correct understanding of it. The term ‘attachment parenting’ was coined by Dr. Sears back in the ’80s. It was partly in response to other parenting methods of previous generations that probably leaned a little too far in being a bit more cold. Children should be seen and not heard. Huddling as coddling, that sort of thing. While he gets it right, the parents should be emotionally responsive to their child. He misses what being responsive really means, like I just talked about.
Also, I think the main tenets of attachment parenting, which include things like breast is best, bed sharing, baby wearing, I think all those go too far in this idea of what it means to be a secure base. Because attachment parenting acts like the parent is the child’s world rather than the base from which they go explore the world.
From what I’ve seen, the idea of attachment parenting is ironically very detrimental to secure attachment. Because it instills so much that they’re going to damage their child. Because a lot of these tenets of attachment parenting — the birth bonding, the exclusively breastfeeding, the baby wearing — it’s just not realistic for many families and even families who try their best.
You can always control if you end up having a C section and you don’t get that golden hour, or if your child has an allergy and you can’t speed. And so all these parents have so much fear that they’re damaging their child that they’re not capable of really attuning. They are emotionally dysregulated from all the misinformation, the fear mongering, the mom shaming. And so, oftentimes, they end up misreading their child’s needs. Or, they’ve been led to believe that they need to do things for their child, that their child actually is capable of doing themselves, which conveys a lack of confidence in the child’s abilities.
Or, they’re ultimately encouraging an over reliance on the parent. That is actually one of the things that’s most likely to create that anxious attachment style, which often develops primarily from parents who are engaging with their children based on what they need as a parent to feel comfortable rather than what the child needs. They need the crying to stop right now. The child needs a few more minutes to figure it out, because they’re almost there.
Jayne Havens: Yeah, I see that a lot.
Tara Dakin Sauer: Those are key differences.
Jayne Havens: Yeah, I see it a lot. I find that the parents who most closely identify as being sort of in that attachment parenting camp and they’re often so worried about their child’s secure attachment to them, they land themselves in this situation — they come to me when their kids are three, four or five. They land themselves in this situation where their child is actually incredibly anxious, incredibly insecure about their place in the world. Because the only place that they feel safe is in their mother’s bed, or in a carrier, on their parent’s back, or nursing. They don’t have the confidence and the capability to thrive without that protection.
In my mind, the whole idea of being securely attached is that you can venture off and go do your thing and then feel safe to come back when you’re ready. A lot of these children don’t get the opportunity to try to do very many things on their own. Whether that be sleeping, whether that be going to preschool, whether that be just actually sitting in another room in the house where a parent is not sitting — all of that feels incredibly unsafe for these children that I work with. And so I just find it to be so ironic.
Tara Dakin Sauer: Yeah, and it limits their ability to emotionally regulate themselves when the parent tries to shut down the feeling. Again, with good intentions, they don’t want the child to be uncomfortable. But then, the child never really learns how to be uncomfortable. They tend to develop different coping strategies to shut down their own feelings because they didn’t have a parent who gave them the space to just sit there and be with them while they were upset.
Jayne Havens: Yeah, exactly. As a therapist and a sleep consultant, how are you helping moms to navigate any worries or anxiety they are having about compromising secure attachment with their baby or child while working towards establishing healthy and independent sleep habits in their home?
Tara Dakin Sauer: I will definitely share with parents a lot of what we just talked about. I’ll talk about what the research actually says and help them understand where a lot of what they’ve heard has come from, and why it doesn’t actually mean what they think it means. Then I tend to be the one that just pushes into that worry rather than just being like, “Oh, no, you don’t need to worry about it. Here’s what the research says. It’s good. I promise. Two weeks from now, you’re going to love me. Your whole family is going to be sleeping great.”
Yes, that’s all true. But then just digging into, okay, hypothetically, let’s say that this process is traumatizing and impacts the attachment, what does that mean? What are you worried about? What’s going to happen from that? Sometimes just having a chance to talk it out loud helps them realize that they really are spiraling and having very irrational fears around this.
Going back to when do you feel most connected to your baby, when do you feel like your child feels really bonded to you, tell me about those moments. Then usually, we’re able to figure out like, oh, people are usually more rested and calmer in those moments. And so what do you think you would need? What do you think your child would need to have more of those moments? Then it usually comes back to, “Well, we all need more sleep.” And so sometimes it is just saying, you know what? Again, I don’t believe this. I don’t think the research supports this.
But hypothetically, even if this process is really traumatizing and hard for everybody, this is a couple of weeks in the grand scheme of things. And so when you think about your child’s entire childhood and you being the parent that you want to be for your baby, is it worth the discomfort of this for all of you to get to the other side and be the rested, healthy parent that you need to be in? Don’t you think that will ultimately help you create that secure attachment?
Jayne Havens: Yeah, absolutely. How do you see maternal mental health impacting secure attachment or being connected with secure attachment?
Tara Dakin Sauer: Part of it was what I just mentioned. Being dysregulated makes it harder to attune. You’re so caught up in your own feelings, you can’t accurately read what is going on with the baby or the child and what they need. Parents are more often to respond when they aren’t calm, which then increases the child’s stress because they can pick up on that.
I often see it lead to inconsistency, which, again, they found that was one of the biggest things. Parents who obviously the ones who really care about building a secure attachment are the ones who are most likely to do that. They’re the ones who are actually thinking about that. But when they are struggling with their mental health, they’re more likely to have off days where they’re not able to respond in the way that they want.
Or because they’re so anxious, then they’re trying this parenting method this day. Two weeks later, they’re trying this method. They’re jumping around, and that makes it confusing for the child and harder for them to know. The parents don’t give it enough time to see that work. Then they’re more stressed. So it can just be this domino effect where when they don’t have the confidence to just stick with something, then it creates a lot of that inconsistency, which then ends up — it just goes back and forth. It impacts the child which impacts the mom, which impacts the child again, and on and on.
Jayne Havens: I see a lot of chatter in mom’s circles about how “sleep training is traumatizing.” I put that in air quotes because we have listeners here. Can we discuss this? Where does this idea come from?
Tara Dakin Sauer: It comes from research on stress and trauma. Some of the research isn’t great quality. Some of it is fine. But the main issue is that attachment parenting is one example. Other people have taken the findings from this research, and they’ve extrapolated it far beyond what was actually studied. Because stress is not the same thing as trauma, first of all. There’s what’s considered positive short-term stress, and then there’s chronic long-term toxic stress.
Our cortisol gets raised when we are stressed, but our bodies are designed to cope with stress. And so short-term stress like the stress of sleep training actually builds resilience. It helps our body learn to manage stressful situations. Whereas toxic stress or traumatic experiences, those cause such consistent, prolonged — again, we’re not talking days. We’re talking weeks, months, years of time where there’s such a prolonged elevation in cortisol, that then it damages the body’s ability to respond adaptively to stress.
Again, chronically high cortisol levels ultimately, eventually, lead to very low stress levels. People can just be checked out and not respond in a way that’s actually helpful.
People, often when they talk about sleep training being traumatizing, they’re generally referring to the crying. They think that crying for long periods of time is what’s traumatizing. But the crying involved in sleep training — even if it’s prolonged crying, even if the crying is going on without a parent’s presence — that happens in the context of parents who are meeting the child’s needs. Because extinction doesn’t just mean leaving the baby and never coming back. It means checking if they have a need.
It also happens in the context of parents. They’re choosing to allow their child to experience the discomfort that comes with learning the skill, that they’re providing their child with love and affection throughout that process, again, even if they’re giving space at different times. When you think about just the whole day of what it’s like, they’re singing to them. They’re playing with them when it’s not time to sleep.
Whereas the studies that have claimed that this is traumatizing are based primarily on babies who grew up in Romanian orphanages. These babies were left alone in their cribs all day, every day. No one was checking if they were hungry, or wet, or cold when they were struggling to fall asleep. When they were awake, no one was singing to them. No one played with them or snuggled them or told them how much they were left. Parents we work with are doing all of those things.
Those babies, the ones in the orphanages, experienced profound neglect which clearly hindered their development that damaged their ability to form healthy attachment. But those two scenarios, I should think would be obvious, is not even close to the same thing.
Jayne Havens: Yeah, thank you. I agree. Whenever I’m having these really tricky conversations on the podcast, I always like to reflect and think about what main key takeaways the audience will have from these discussions. For someone who’s either already supporting families as a sleep consultant or perhaps it’s someone who’s considering entering the field, what advice can you share that will make us all better prepared to navigate these conversations and better support our clients?
Tara Dakin Sauer: I think a lot of it goes back to confidence. It’s sort of what we talked about last time of where does your confidence come from, and how does that show up in the work that you do? The first thing, I think, is to ask yourself what is your why. What drives you to do this work? All of us get into this because we’re passionate about it for some reason. Maybe it was personal experience. Or, I’m one of those people who got into this work through a convoluted way. I don’t have children yet, but I’m still very passionate about it.
For me, from years of working in this industry, both focused on the babies and focused on the moms, I know. I have seen in person, seen that babies and children are capable of learning to be better sleepers, and that this has a positive impact on the whole family. And so I think about those times. The parents who have just cried — this time, positive, happy tears because their life has been so dramatically changed — I think of those moments and find confidence in that.
I think also asking yourself, okay, what do you do? What gives you confidence when, again, maybe these negative messages or people who are pushing back creates doubts or insecurities that are coming up in you? For me, I found what helps is knowing what the research says on both sides and being able to simply say without hesitation what that is and having links to back it up.
So I’m ready to drop off the hat to say, look, we have evidence that poor sleep negatively impacts children’s development. We have evidence that untreated mental illness in a parent negatively impacts children’s development. We have evidence that there are immediate benefits to sleep training. Small improvements were found in the mood and behavior of children. There was a significant improvement in parental mental health. We also have evidence there’s no long-term harm. They followed up with children who were sleep trained versus those who weren’t five years later, and they found no significant difference. Like, boom.
Jayne Havens: I think at the end of the day, it’s up to us to know our stuff. I think that that’s what you’re saying, right? I entirely agree. So for those who are listening who are already sleep consultants, and if you’re listening to Tara rattle all of this off like it’s no big deal, and you’re sitting here listening, thinking like, “Whoa, I have some studying to do,” then yes, I agree.
We all need to dig in deeper and really take ownership of this information and really, truly understand it so that we can believe it, so that we can regurgitate it, so that we can share this with our clients. Because I think it’s so important to understand the evidence and really present ourselves as the experts, so that parents can feel confident that we are leading them in the right direction and with the proper support.
Tara Dakin Sauer: Right. Also, I think I said this last week, too. It’s a process. You’re not going to have all the answers at the very beginning. I learned a lot more even just preparing for this discussion. There’s always more coming out. So to start, find one thing. Find one article and read about it, or read a summary of it. I know in CPSM, there’s different sections where there’s very clear little summaries of lots of different pieces of research. So you don’t even have to read the whole article. But have a couple of links and know how to explain what that study says and start there.
Jayne Havens: Thank you. I really appreciate you coming on today to share your expertise. I can’t wait for everybody to have this opportunity to learn from you. So thanks again.
Tara Dakin Sauer: Yes, of course.
Outro: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of the Becoming a Sleep Consultant Podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, it would mean so much to me if you would rate, review, and subscribe. When you rate, review, and subscribe, this helps the podcast reach a greater audience. I am so grateful for your support.
If you would like to learn more about how you can become a certified sleep consultant, head over to my Facebook Group, Becoming a Sleep Consultant or to my website thecpsm.com. Thanks so much, and I hope you will tune in for the next episode. Secure Attachment