One day, a dear mom of a 6-month-old blurted out, “I just can’t do this attachment parenting thing anymore.” We asked her what she meant and she said, “This 24/7 responding to every peep and wake up. I’m spending so much time every night getting my baby back to sleep, over and over, and her sleep is not improving, it’s getting worse. We’re both so tired we can barely function.” We see this a lot—parents aren’t given the full story about what secure attach- ment really means, and that it includes having an eye toward your baby’s growing independence, learning, and, sometimes, struggle. They’re diligent about helping, but over time the baby is overly reliant on the parents and hasn’t practiced her own abilities.
You probably do this balancing act in other realms of parenting without even thinking about it. Imagine that your 15-month-old is working hard on a shape sorter. Her chubby little hand is jamming the pieces in just slightly askew. You’re dying to nudge the piece for her but you know she needs to struggle if she’s going to learn. You might offer a word or two of encouragement, but if you swipe the circle and pop it through the designated hole, she’s sure to hand the next piece right to you and ask you to do it for her again. When it comes to sleep, the same idea applies. When you do something for your child that she is able to do herself, you take away her chance to struggle and ultimately learn.
This is why we use the term “attunement” instead of “attach- ment”—so we can be clear about the goal. To be attuned is to be pres- ent and curious, so you can watch your baby and know when to help and also when to give her space. Attuned parents are responsive, while also having clear expectations. They send the message, I’m here with you, and I’m watching, but I know you can do it. You don’t underhelp (by shutting the door and never responding) or overhelp (lying down with your child, rocking or nursing your baby to sleep after she has outgrown this need). When you respond to your child this way, it’s amazing how you’ll see her sleep skills flourish. It’s not because you’ve trained her or tricked her into sleeping well, it’s because she’s able to practice and develop her natural, innate ability to sleep. Pause, observe, and allow your child to find her own way. It can be tough to do, but this is how your baby grows.
Sounds logical, right? But over and over, we see that parents ei- ther skew toward overhelping, or they overhelp, get fed up, and feel that they have no choice but to resort to a harsh, underhelping stance. Each of the methods in these chapters gives you concrete directions for how to be responsive, but to also allow your child to stay in charge of his own self-soothing (after the age of 5 months) so that he can sleep happily and independently.
Example of Attunement: Toddler Sleep Troubles
Here’s a scenario of a toddler who’s having a very common and nor- mal fear of the dark. Night after night, he won’t fall asleep alone in his room and you’re all exhausted.
Underhelping: You get frustrated and snap at him, “There’s noth- ing to be afraid of!” You close the door and don’t go back in, even when he cries.
Overhelping: You immediately lie down with your child until he falls asleep, and continue to do this every time he goes to bed.
Attuned plan: You and your child practice making the room dark during the day. You talk about how light and dark work and use a flashlight to play and teach about shadows. When it’s time for bed, you give your child’s stuffed animal 10 hugs and kisses and tell him he can get these in the night if he needs them. You say good night and set up 5-minute “check-ons” (see Chapter 5 for the Reverse Sleep Wave).