The other day I was asked by a friend how “on Earth” could I, being a postpartum doula, have become a sleep consultant? How could I manage what – she thought – were two completely opposite services? While a doula is all for mum and baby connection and for having their needs responded to, a sleep consultant was just the opposite, always aiming at sleep training babies and getting fast results, right? WRONG! Then I patiently explained to her what I’m going to explain here.
I never liked polarizations. And it’s been making me really sad and frustrated what I’ve been seeing on social media lately (especially in Brazil, I must say, but not only). Advocates of the Attachment Parenting philosophy have been attacking sleep consultants, demoralising all the work they do. They have been equalising sleep consulting with sleep training, and sleep training with cry it out (CIO). They have been advising mums against any and all sleep consultants and suggesting that mums have to just deal with sleep deprivation and exhaustion because that’s part of a mum’s life. The image that has been evoked is that co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand is the solution to everything, and if you don’t do them you’re not going to raise secure-attached children. If you hire a sleep consultant, your connection with your baby will be broken forever and you cannot call yourself an attachment parenting parent. The battle is on: Attachment Parenting X Sleep Consulting.
There are so many misconceptions in the paragraph above that I don’t even know where to start in order to clarify them.
First, Attachment Parenting (AP) is such a beautiful philosophy. Who doesn’t want to have a secure-attached child who’s likely to become a balanced adult? The thing is breastfeeding on demand for at least 2 years (and weaning only when baby chooses so) and bedsharing are not the only ways to have a secure-attached child. The API in reality doesn’t even say it has to be this way, but this is what most people, including some AP parents, think it is. And when AP parents start imposing their own principles on other mums by saying those things are the only way to be a “good” mother, they’re doing exactly what they criticise about the sleep consultants’ work: that sleep consultants “make parents do CIO and lose their connection with their baby”.
We’re living the age of the shallow information, and sooooo much information. Few people look for deeper knowledge about their choices, and sometimes I think even fewer know how to interpret what is being read. They hear Attachment Parenting is about co-sleeping, breastfeeding, responding to your baby’s every squirm, and they don’t know what really is behind creating a secure attachment. On the website of the API, they explain that “Attachment Parenting is an application of sensitive responsive parenting, based in the practice of nurturing parenting methods that create strong emotional bonds, also known as secure attachment, between children and their parent(s). This style of parenting encourages responsiveness to children’s emotional needs, enabling children to develop trust that their needs will be met.” They haven’t mentioned breastfeeding and bedsharing once in their main definition. They are also very clear about every family being unique. If, for example, bedsharing is not for you, or if you could not or chose not to breastfeed, there are other ways for you to attend to baby’s need for touch and loving care, and to bond strongly with your child.
I like the principles of the true AP very much (see them here: http://www.attachmentparenting.org/principles/api). I myself applied and still apply their principles in the way I raise my children (they’re 5 and 7 now). My son and I never bedshared, and I ended up breastfeeding him only to 8 months (for reasons that are not to be stated in this article). My daughter was breastfed to 14 months, and co-slept part of the night for quite a few months. I babywore both, but both used a dummy to sleep until 3yo. I say I am an Attachment Parenting mother. Some would say I can’t be one with that background. What I did was just to adapt API principles to my family’s circumstance and dynamics! And what I hear the most about my children is how confident with everything they both are. And I see many families that are strongly attached without having followed the list of “must-dos” that has been spread out there.
If a family chooses and is able to breastfeed and co-sleep, that’s great as these are wonderful ways to nurture a strong emotional bond with you children! But they’re not the only path. Secure attachment is nurtured in many different ways: by talking to your baby eye to eye, by hugging and holding them, by playing with them, singing for them, by having a meal together, by being genuinely interested in them… by being attuned to them. The idea is that the main caregiver is focused on the baby’s needs, which is possible only if the caregivers themselves are well. No mum will be “less of a mum” for not breastfeeding or co-sleeping. I could go on here and talk about the Attachment Theory by Bowlby (the base for the API) which gives us a lot of knowledge on attachment, and makes it clear that creating a secure attachment is more about HOW you do things and respond to your baby rather than WHAT you do. But this will be a topic for another post.
Sleep consulting is not Sleep training
The other great misconception I’d like to discuss here is that sleep consulting = sleep training = cry it out. This might have been like that in the 1980’s. But science on sleep has improved greatly and with it the work of the sleep consultant, especially those that call themselves HOLISTIC or INTEGRATIVE (as in any profession, there are different styles of sleep consultants out there). I know at least 5 schools (2 international ones, 3 in Brazil) that form sleep consultants whose work goes far beyond sleep training, many times not even touching it. CIO is out of question for them (for us). And even gentle methods (methods where babies are not let to cry alone) are only applied (if they ever are – it all depends on the family specificities like baby’s and mother’s wellbeing and temperament, how comfortable the mother would feel, etc, etc) after a deep assessment of all the factors science tells us interfere with sleep and after respectful strategies are put into place to guarantee baby and mum are having their needs met. I’m not going to mention them now (I studied months and months to learn about them and have been talking about them in other posts), but the base for a healthy sleep is: all needs attended to and emotional wellbeing.
So when I see people condemning the work of the sleep consultant, I see they either totally disregard the physical and emotional wellbeing of the parent (by trying to normalise sleep deprivation) or they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Or yet they don’t take into consideration the Western style of life and the world we live in.
Simplifying and reducing things, and putting AP and Sleep consulting as two opposite sides is an enormous disservice for families in the real world. There are so many possibilities in between the two extremes the picture above shows, one not being the definition of AP, the other not being the definition of sleep consulting. This battle that has been fed by radical people on both sides will take us nowhere – or if somewhere, to a dark place.
There are so many ways to be a mum/parent, so many “motherhoods” possible. It’s time we stop judging each other and we start accepting that what I believe and choose is not necessarily the best way for everybody. It may be the best way for my family, but not for every family.
It’s not a contradiction to be a doula AND a sleep consultant
My work as a sleep consultant totally matches my work as a postpartum doula. My focus in both is the wellbeing of mum and baby, the respect for their choices in life, for their needs, and for child’s stage of development, and I always work with scientific evidence.
Both as a doula and as a holistic sleep consultant, I’ll never impose anything on my clients – I’ll discuss with them options, and I’ll support them on their choices, always having in mind that they should do only what they feel comfortable doing.
I don’t think a healthy sleep is necessarily sleeping through the night, I don’t think it’s wrong for babies to sleep while breastfeeding, I’ll never tell you not to give your baby eye contact (quite the opposite), and I don’t think babies need to be taught how to sleep. I do have lots of respectful strategies to create the optimal conditions that will support your child in reaching that neurological development that will allow your family to have a healthy sleep, to wake up feeling good and with enough energy to carry on your daily activities with joy and connection.
Ultimately, that’s what is going to nurture the secure attachment every parent wants to have with their children!
P.S.: Be aware of fundamentalisms and radicalisms on both sides of the spectrum. Don’t believe people who tell you you’re doing wrong, or that there’s nothing to be done.