It’s 8 p.m., and we’re segueing from the hectic high of the day to the mellow low of kid bedtime.
Downstairs, an explosion of dishes, laundry and toys is waiting to be dealt with. Upstairs, the kids are begging for a story, a glass of water, a hug—anything to keep us with them for one more minute. All I want is to wrap up this part of the day so I can descend into the fray before I lose the energy to scrub the pots.
“Mommy, will you lie down with me?” my daughter asks. And I sigh because it’s not really on the schedule. But I also don’t want to do the dishes. So I get under her pink duvet in the quiet dim of her room, and she pulls my face close. She smells like bath soap and warm milk, and she whispers, “Let’s talk about our day.”
It’s a ritual we started when she was small, as part of the last moments we spend together every night. We reflect on the day: What was fun, what was tough, what made us happy, what made us sad. It’s here in her bed that I learn the most about her, and she learns the most about me. And sometimes it’s the first time all day we’ve actually touched in a meaningful way. Inevitably she closes her eyes she pulls my hand toward her, comforted in the knowledge that I’m right beside her.
I never intended to be a parent who would lie down with her kids until they fell asleep. On the contrary, I had it in my head that kids should fall asleep on their own, tucked in with the lights off. Not just because we still have a life to live after our children are in bed, but because I believed it was in their best interest to self-soothe without us.
My beliefs have shifted in the nearly five years since I became a parent. My oldest daughter has always needed us close by to fall asleep. We rocked her to sleep as a newborn, sung her to sleep as an infant, and rubbed her back to sleep as a toddler. Even now she still needs us close by—often in her room, but preferably in her bed. Is this a terrible habit that we’ve facilitated? Maybe. But at the end of the day, does it really matter?
The truth is, she will learn to fall asleep on her own soon enough. We won’t be sending her to university with a clone of ourselves that she can snuggle in her dorm room. Before we know it, there will be closed doors and independence, and we will pine for the days when she needed to feel our hand on her back before she felt safe enough to drift to sleep.
The idea of lying down with your children—along with other child-centred practices like feeding on demand, baby-wearing and co-sleeping—form the basis of attachment parenting, a style that seems to fall in line with my parenting values.
Attachment parenting (AP) isn’t one strict set of guidelines. Instead, it’s a general child-rearing philosophy that emphasizes physical support and comfort to provide children with a sense of safety when they need it.
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, there’s evidence that attachment parenting actually sets kids up for success as adults. “When you separate the popular exaggerations of AP from the more objectively oriented scientific studies, it’s a sensible approach that fosters physical and psychological health in children,” Whitbourne writes in a 2013 article in Psychology Today. “We do know from extensive research … that securely attached adults have happier and less conflict-ridden lives. There’s even research to suggest they may be better parents themselves.”
One such set of research was conducted in 2010 by Patrice Marie Miller and Michael Lamport Commons at Harvard Medical School.
“Attachment Parenting consists of continuing to be highly responsive to the child,” Miller and Commons write in their paper, “The Benefits of Attachment Parenting For Infants and Children.” “The benefits … include less exposure to stress, which effects [sic] brain development and later reactions to stress. This has been shown to reduce mental health problems in later development.”
“Another important psychological benefit is secure attachment, which is the tendency of the child to seek contact with a parent when distressed and to be effectively consoled by that contact. The result of more effective emotion regulation and secure attachment … is that children engage more effectively with essential developmental tasks, including peer relationships and schooling.”
Of course, not every child needs their parents to help them regulate stress and anxiety in the same way. My youngest daughter is usually able to fall asleep on her own, but her needs have always been different than her sister’s.
I’ve come to learn that because my kids are so fundamentally different, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to raising them. And as they grow, their needs—and what they need from me as their parent—will continue to evolve.
I don’t know what goes through my oldest daughter’s mind as she lies down at night waiting for sleep to come. I don’t know her worries and stresses, nor do I really understand the degree to which my presence helps her put those worries aside.
All I know is that as long as she needs my body next to hers, I will be there for her. Giving her my arms when she needs to feel me close, and giving her space when she needs to feel independent. I will always try to be a responsive and compassionate parent. And right now, that means lying with her under her pink duvet in the quiet dim of her room.