Infant Sleep Methods Part Five – Dr. Sears

In Part Five of my Infant Sleep Series, I revisit Dr. Sears’ bed-sharing and attachment parenting books as I am today, the mother of a 17-year-old son and a trained and experienced Licensed Professional Counselor. I first read about Dr. Sears philosophies as a new mother learning how to breast-feed and learning how to parent, so long ago.



I approach this blog post with a great deal of trepidation. I have been putting off writing about Dr. Sears, as I have mixed thoughts and feelings about his methods. I am now well aware that, as an LPC, I have a serious responsibility to my clients to present and use evidence-based methods in my practice. With this in mind, I recently re-read his book, The Attachment Parenting Book, (2001), and his newer book, The Baby Sleep Book, (2005). Both of these books promote the attachment parenting style of parenting, which includes breast-feeding, baby wearing, and safe co-sleeping.

On the positive side, I think (and feel) Dr. Sears’ attachment parenting philosophy to be a beautiful and necessary addition to our culture. The American childcare culture was (is) heavily influenced by inaccurate Victorian and Behaviorist ideas about the nature of children. The Victorians thought children had the psychology of small adults. We now know that developmentally, children are not small adults. The Behaviorists thought that babies could be raised with little emotional connection and conducted experiments on babies which have been renounced and are now considered sociopathological. We now know that children are not little adults; there are developmental milestones that need to be met physically, psychologically in order to achieve adulthood. We also now know a normal emotional and biologically-based attachment process occurs in order to achieve both physical and emotional health.

So, Dr. Sears’ contribution to the American public regarding the true nature of babies cannot be overestimated. Dr. Sears was a forerunner for the emotional rights of children and families. To a broad audience, he introduced the idea that simply picking the baby up is a valid way of parenting. Building on the research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and integrating observation of primitive cultures, he introduced the idea at our adult relationships are influenced by our earliest experiences, and that early experience can be optimized by treating the newborn and infant with respect and love, to a broad audience.

This contribution cannot be over-estimated in the American culture where babies were thought to neither have significant feelings physically nor emotionally. Hats off to you, Dr. Sears, for that enormous and brave contribution.

On the con side, new parents, so emotionally vulnerable, need some guidance about how to strike a balance between their baby’s needs and their own needs.

Dr. Sears’ books and philosophies generally don’t offer solutions to specific problems, such as Dr. Harvey Karp’s Calming Reflex or Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s carefully documented research on the benefits of sleep and how-to structured sleep routines as a complementary or alternative method to breast-feeding and safe bed-sharing. Both pediatricians offer step-by-step solutions to exhausted parents in need of sleep. Mrs. Elizabeth Pantley also offers solid, kind solutions about infant sleep which consider both baby’s and mom’s needs.

In addition, very glaringly, Dr. Sears’ books are not research-based. They do not include references to valid, reliable, and current research materials nor are there references to research backing up his methods. His guides are labeled as “common sense” guides to understanding your baby.

Another unfortunate omission is Dr. Sears gives the impression to new parents that a healthy biological attachment can only occur in families that breast-feed and practice safe bed sharing. We know now emphatically this is not the case.

It is vitally important for parents to know that healthy biological attachment occurs in babies in families with a broad range of healthy parenting styles.

What I see in my private practice is that new parents reading his books take his information very literally. And, caught up in the normal psychological, emotional and biologically-induced parental preoccupation with their newborn, they get anxious or afraid that if they don’t practice attachment parenting properly, the biological attachment process will not enact. Moms become afraid if they don’t breast-feed or safely co-sleep the biological attachment process will be interrupted in some way. This is clearly not true. Over a person’s lifetime, there is no scientific evidence that suggests a formula fed baby cannot be normally emotionally attached to his mother and family.

In 2011, we now know the biological attachment is the result of a series of repetitive interactions which occur over time, and adopted babies can achieve healthy emotional biological attachment as well as biologically birthed babies.

The current infant sleep methods all take into account the immaturity of the nervous system during the fourth trimester, and suggest parents wait until at least 12 weeks to start sleep training. So, that information is now out there as common knowledge.

Dr. Sears does not offer any other suggestions other than breast-feeding and safe bed-sharing as part of his philosophy. And this can be very hard on moms and families who need some good structured solutions to help themselves stay emotionally, psychologically, and physically healthy.

What do I take away from this?

As I said before, I think Dr. Sears has a beautiful parenting philosophy. However I think the attachment parenting philosophy needs to be updated with current research to include information that helps parents meet their own sleep needs.

Growing into the role of a parent is a psychological and emotional process. It is a period of great change on many levels, body mind & spirit. With great change there are high emotions. And with a high emotional state, I know that people need permission to consider their own needs, their own mental and emotional health and practice self-care, as well as meeting their baby’s needs.

To be relevant to today’s parents, I think Dr. Sears needs to bring in current research regarding the attachment process and offer parents some alternative sleep parenting pathways in order to help preserve parents’ own mental and emotional health.

I await your comments with a bit of trepidation! But please share your thoughts!

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17 Responses to “Infant Sleep Methods Part Five – Dr. Sears”

  • Hi Kathy,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on Dr. Sears sleep methods. I notice that you, as do the parents you speak of find it difficult to see the Balance part of attachment parenting. In fact Dr Sears does speak of bottle feeding and not co-sleeping if it doesn’t work for your family. This is also what i have noticed in my 23 years of working with families.
    I think naturally as babies are completely dependant in the early weeks balance is temporarily shifted. Then getting back some of that can be difficult for parents who have heard so much about ‘self esteem and securtiy’ and have been living in the ‘adult’ world for so long.
    Ultimately having the baby feel safe will lead to better sleep and life habits and safety may feel bit different to all of us and so i expect the debate will continue! Good to hear more about these useful resources. Elizibeth Pantley ‘No Cry, Sleep Solution’ is worth mention to…..

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Karen –
      Thanks for your input! I will go back and re-check his books, as I maybe missed when Dr. Sears, and I could be missing some important information! Let me just say I love the AP methods and think it is a great addition to modern day parenting. Absolutely. I think your points are well-taken about the balance needing to shift to the baby, as they are so dependent, and I am so glad you mentioned that! I guess what I’m tryign to talk about (I don’t know how successfully I am doing so!) is when there is extremem emotional distress on the mom’s part, that there needs to be a way to let her feel it’s ok to not be perfect, to put the baby down for a bit, to get help, to not feel so bound up in one way, that there are many kind approaches to baby-sleep and parenting. I love Mrs. Pantley’s methods as well. Thanks so much for you additional comments to this discussion, You added some great ppints!
      take care, Kathy

  • BRAVO! As a postpartum doula, I’d like to point out your advice to all my clients.
    Sleep, or the lack of it, is probably the number two issue my clients address (#1 is breastfeeding).
    Permission to consider you own needs is so important. I encourage my clients to read a variety of resources on parenting styles, preferably when they have the time BEFORE their baby arrives to decide what seems right to them in their “gut”. And no one parenting school of thought is right for everyone. There is no one-size fits all philosophy.
    I’m also a big proponent of safe co-sleeping, IF and only if it works for the entire family and am so excited I recently was gifted with a co-sleeper I can offer on loan to clients.

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Elaine –
      Thanks for being the reasonable, experienced and well-read person you are! I am getting some responses on this blog in a Birthing group on Facebook. But no one from that group has commented directly on the blog.
      Yes, I think there are many ways to parent and many ways to enact the healthy human attachment bond. And research bears this out, the book, Handbook of Attachment (2008), 1000 pages long, has alot of great info about human attachment.
      take care, Kathy

  • Billee Wolff:

    Kathy this is wonderful and well written. I think parents need to comfortable and confident with the choices they make. Having evidenced based information available to them is so important. Mental and emotional needs of the parents need to be considered. I once worked with a mother that resented every moment she breast fed her baby. As soon as she gave herself permission to give her baby a bottle, she was more available to her baby and happier. Emotional environment is as important if not more important as physical environment. This being said I am a very big supporter of breastfeeding and think most babies and moms benefit so much from breastfeeding. Families and parents make choices that are best for their family.

    Thank you for writing this!!

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Billee –
      Thanks so much for your comments! You are such a long-time, well-known and hard-working professional L&D nurse and doula ! I am glad there are professionals out there who work with a broad range of people, and have clinically run in to people who just need to parent differently than the new idealized way. I want to say that I am a big supporter of breastfeeding and safe co-sleeping, and know there are great benefits to it, and practiced this myself, long ago! And also there are more ways to parent lovingly and raise securely attached human beings. thanks again, Billee
      take care, Kathy

  • Kathy,

    I appreciate so many things about this article. Most importantly, I love the reminder that parents need permission to attend to their own self-care. Children need parents who are healthy and able to deal with the wonderful, arduous, joyful, challenging journey of parenthood. But I also appreciate your thoughtful, considered introduction of research and practical tools into this area that is often so laden with both positive and negative emotions. Often research seems inaccessible to the average person, and you did a nice job of making it easy to understand.

    Thanks for this!

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Ann – Thanks for the feedback, yes, I am attempting to sort through all the stuff out there about parenting that is stressing new parents out. Much opinion is based on studies that are not valid & reliable, it is just personal opinion, and should be noted as such, rather than a way to direct others. Remember when “common sense” told mothers they were the cause of schizophrenia?
      Of course that is not true, sx is now known to be genetic. Mental illness still has a great stigma, and its etiology is greatly misunderstood.
      Trying to lighten people’s loads. I think Dr Sears has a great philosophy, but it is not the only way to go to raise emotionally healthy humans.

  • Heidi:

    I thought this was absolutely brilliant. I am a Christian mama, and a Christian birth educator and doula. As such, I see so many clients struggling with the submissive nature of early motherhood as they try to serve their husband, older children, and newborns. I tell them that sleep deprivation is a real, medical condition, and is only one aspect of new motherhood (and fatherhood). I also find it alarming that so many new mothers are unwittingly being trapped by a very sensationalized view of birth and early parenthood. Birth is “all about the woman” and we should do whatever necessary to give her all the pleasure she wants–often at the sake of forfeiting necessary medical supervision–so that she can follow self-hypnosis, feel at one with all of the mothers in the universe, and even have an orgasm. That surely puts a lot of pressure on the dad, who just wants his wife out of pain. It also, obviously, ignores his own needs during labor, needs to join in with his wife in experiencing one of the most important events in their lives together. Thankfully, this is where doulas come in, but unassisted birth is also gaining momentum, forcing doulas to decide what their position is regarding that. Then, there is the new parenthood experience, which shifts from “all about the woman” to “all about the baby”. Absolutely, babies need to be touched, nurtured, loved and cared for. They need their needs met in a timely fashion. And, they need good dads, who also feel fed and filled by love and affection. It seems as though we are dangerously discounting the needs of the male figures in our newest and most trendiest views of childbirth and early parenting. Co-sleeping isn’t a reasonable option for many parents, and so to put that pressure on a couple and say that the only way to parent right is to never remove yourself from the baby, oftentimes prevents the mother and the father from appropriately getting fed themselves, by having some time together to remember that they are a married couple who had a child, and not the life-long servants of their offspring. There are ways to accomodate attachement parenting philosphies while still getting the time the parents need, but it isn’t talked about. No, instead, the parents race full-force into everything that seems trendy, natural, and best………and they either succeed, or they collapse, sleep-deprived, drenched in postpartum depression and defeat. And where do they turn to for support? They feel rejected and shamed. And, this is how they present themselves to their crying infants: frazzled, frustrated, and feeling like a failure. I think that the high bar is important, because so many people do at least strive for it, and fall somewhere at least higher than they perhaps would have without the bar to begin with. However, there needs to be a realistic safety net, to catch these parents, so that even if they aren’t doing everything “perfectly”, they can bounce back and say, “I’m still a good parent with nothing to be ashamed of, and my child is still getting his or her needs met.” THAT is what is best for the child.

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Heidi –
      I truly appreciate your comments. I am glad to hear that I am not the only person out there who sees that not all women are capable of
      completely embracing the AP lifestyle. I do not think there is any hing wrong with AP, I think it is a beautiful and wonderful addition to our modern out-of-touch world, and I also think there needs to be some permission here, some leeway, to let moms & families know the range of normal for “good enough” parents is broader than the ideal philosophy presented. What is right for one family may not be right for another.
      Thanks so much for your balanced view. Sleep is very important for emotional health!

  • Wonderful post Kathy. How I wish that I had you and your blog when I had my first daughter.

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Irene – Thanks for the comments! That is my intention, to help new parents sort through what is out there, so as not to be so confused or to feel they “must” do things a certain way.
      I must say, the mental health people like the post, and the birth ppl don’t.
      Interesting to me, how do i straddle both worlds?
      ty, Kathy

  • Allison Andrews:

    Kathy, This is a great and balanced review of Dr. Sears who I agree has a lot to offer but in my opinion drops the ball on the sleep issue. Personally, I think Marc Weissbluth is a much better sleep guru and although he has an a definite point of view about sleep, talks about how important it is for each family to do what works for them and he teaches new parents about the sleep needs of infants… and that elusive gold standard of drowsy but awake : ) and understanding the importance, once babies are a certain age of gently developing some self soothing.

    From my experience as mom and as a clinician, sleep is such an important key element and risk factor for post-partum issues… Giving new moms permission to think about there own needs is a great service. Thanks, Allison

    • BirthTouch:

      Hi Allison –
      Thanks for your reply! I appreciate that you understand that I was not attacking Dr. Sears, or saying his methods are invalid…I thought I made it abundantly clear that he brought an ancient concept to the modern world about the ancient and true nature of babies and mothering/parenting.
      But what prompted me to do this series is the amount of women I actually see in my office who are overwhelned by AP, and need some help with sleep guidelines. I think Dr. Weissbluth has fantastic research and information about the importance of good sleep hygiene, and he also offers a whole range of guidelines for a whole range of family types/baby temperaments. He is also not opposed to safe bed-sharing and breastfeeding. But I think the thing I didn’t like abt his methods was the part abt letting the baby vomit and locking the door on a child. I think tis is dangerous and also quite emotionally cruel. But he has good points. Dr. Karp has good info and a good approach as well.

  • Hey Kathy–

    Judging by the comments this is a very touchy subject. Sleep guidelines, in my opinion, should be just that. No one size fits all plan is ever going to work. I like the emphasis you put on taking into consideration parents’ sleep needs, as well.

    Do I regret sleeping with my infant/toddler/and beyond…not really. Given my situation, it was ideal for our household. The only problem encountered was when he “refused” to sleep in a toddler bed. That was remedied with a sleep rule, and when it was consistently enforced, a good night’s sleep was had by all!

    Thank you for the well-researched and informed article :).

  • […] attachment really can occur in a wide range of healthy parenting styles. My business blog has reviews of most of the current infant sleep methods, so your clients don’t have to read all those […]

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