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What are the 6 stages of attachment and how does this affect my child's sleep?


Have you ever wondered why your baby sleeps better when in contact with you? Or why does your toddler like to copy everything you do? It relates to the stage of attachment they are currently in.


These stages are based upon research done by developmental psychologist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld. Each stage typically corresponds with the child’s age (i.e. first stage takes places during the child’s 1st year of life, 2nd stage takes place in the 2nd year of life, etc.) Dr. Neufeld explains the importance of these stages in the following quote: “The capacity for relationship is gradually developed in six sequential phases, each subsequent phase adding a more effective way of holding on when apart as well as enabling children to stay close while becoming their own persons.”

In today’s blog post, I will describe each stage of attachment as well as how you can use this information to help guide your child’s sleep and improve your connection with your child at sleep times.


1st stage of attachment: Attaching through the senses (Age 0-1)


In the first stage of attachment, your baby attaches to you through the senses. This means they are driven to be with you by seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling you. For example, you can see this in their attachment reflexes, such as when they track you with their eyes and grasp your finger. ⠀ So, how can you apply this stage of attachment to support your baby during sleep time?

  • Being aware of this first stage of attachment helps you see why your baby loves to be held in your arms or a carrier rather than placed alone in their crib since then they can touch, smell, and hear you. I remember when my son was a baby, I felt frustrated that he didn’t want to sleep in his crib. Then, I tried holding him for a nap and I realized he would sleep much better this way! This makes so much sense through the lens of attachment.

  • If you would like them to sleep on their own, you could still meet this attachment need for proximity in different ways. For example, you could sleep on their crib sheets for a few nights or spill some breast milk on them if breastfeeding so they can still smell you. Also, you could room share with them so that they can see and hear you during the night, which should help them maintain a sense of comfort. (It is recommended by AAP that babies room share for at least 6 months, ideally 12 months to reduce the risk of SIDS).

2nd stage of attachment: Attaching through sameness (Age 1-2)


The second stage of attachment, which typically occurs in the 2nd year of life is attaching through sameness. This means your toddler is driven to be like you. You can see this when they imitate your actions, words, and behaviours. A super cute example from when my daughter was in this stage was she would sweep the floor with her mini broom when I was sweeping! Since around the 2nd year of life, toddlers are starting to walk and therefore, showing increased independence, this stage is a way of remaining attached when apart. So, how can you apply this stage of attachment to support your toddler during sleep time?

  • If you are experiencing struggles with getting your toddler to follow their bedtime routine, you could do the steps along with them since this will encourage them to follow your lead. For example, you could brush your teeth and get into your pajamas at the same time as your toddler.


  • Remain a calming presence at bedtime to help them relax as well and so they continue to have positive associations with sleep and bedtime.


  • You could give them an item that reminds them of you when they go to sleep (ex. A stuffy you used as a child, or you could put up a picture of you together over their bed).


  • Since they are looking to you as a model in this stage, providing a consistent bedtime routine helps them feel secure and safe as they fall asleep.

3rd stage of attachment: Attaching through belonging/loyalty (Age 2-3)


The third stage is attaching through belonging and loyalty and typically occurs in the 3rd year of life. This means your child is driven to be part of and on the same side as you. A way in which you might see this is when your child says, “That’s my mommy/daddy.” This stage allows them to stay attached at a time when they are starting to identify more as a unique, separate person.


So, how can you apply this stage of attachment to supporting your child during sleep time?

  • Since they are developing their sense of self at this time, their counterwill instinct (which is an innate drive to resist being controlled) is also becoming stronger. If you find they are resisting bedtime, the key is to engage their attachment instincts. For example, let’s say they are in the middle of playing and it is time to start the bedtime routine. You could first sit and play with them for a few minutes, so they are more willing to follow your lead when you say it is time for bed.


  • If you are wanting to move them to their own room or bed, this is a great time as you can really emphasize how it is “their room” and “their bed” as at this stage, they become possessive not just of people they are attached to but also objects.

  • Since this stage is driven by wanting to belong and feel part of the family, make sure you continue to make bedtime a special time by being fully connected and present and emphasize how much you love it as well.

4th stage of attachment: Attaching through significance (Age 3-4)


The 4th stage is attaching through significance and typically occurs in the 4th year of life. This means the child is driven to matter to those to whom they are attached. An example of this is when you tell your child how special they are to you, and you see their eyes light up!


⠀ So, how can you apply this stage of attachment to support your child during sleep time?




  • Since this stage is all about feeling significant, continue to make bedtime a special time with rituals such as reading books, having a snack together, and whatever activities you both enjoy. Try to remain as present and connected during this time as possible. Furthermore, if there is a new baby in the picture, having this time for just the two of you is even more important as the child may be feeling threatened by their new sibling.

  • You could add in a part to their bedtime routine where you talk about their favourite part of the day or something you are grateful for. You could use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how special they are to you or to acknowledge how proud you are of them. ⠀

5th stage of attachment: Attaching through love (Age 4-5)


The 5th stage of attachment is attaching through love and typically occurs in the 5th year of life. It’s in this stage where the child will give their heart to those to whom they are attached.


give their heart to those to whom they are attached. ⠀ So, how can you apply this stage of attachment to supporting your child during sleep time?





  • You could use bedtime as an opportunity to express how much you love your child and exactly what you love about them.

  • Since bedtime represents a long separation from those to whom the child is attached, you can do things to bridge this separation, which means bringing awareness to the next connection and reducing anxiety around being separated for a long period of time. For example, you could talk about what you will eat for breakfast in the morning or even leave a game out overnight to show them you will continue to play the next day. Other ideas to help them still feel connected overnight are to leave their door open so they can still hear you or to show they can come to you if they need you. These are just a few suggestions; it really depends on what works best for you and your child.

6th stage of attachment: Attaching through being known (Age 5-6)

The sixth stage of attachment is attaching through being known. It’s in this stage where the child has attached to the level that they will share all that is in their heart with those to whom they are attached. ⠀ So, what are some ways you can apply this stage of attachment to supporting your child during sleep time?

  • Anything you can do at bedtime to demonstrate how you truly know them. For example, saying “Should we read this book? I know it is your favourite.”


  • Anticipating their needs at bedtime based upon their behaviour or what they have told you about their day. Let’s say they have had a hard day at school and so you could show extra patience and support to them during the bedtime routine.


  • Leaving room at bedtime to talk about any feelings or difficult experiences they had throughout the day demonstrates to them that you are a safe place to share their emotions and you are truly attuned to their needs.

Note: If you would like to learn more about Dr. Neufeld’s stages of attachment, check out the following link for a video lecture done by him discussing each stage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=Q8qt1rv7K9Q I really recommend it! ❤️


In conclusion, attachment is a very important aspect of the parent/child relationship. Many challenges you experience with your child's sleep could be related to the stage of attachment they are in and their need to feel connected and close to you. I hope that by being aware of these stages and applying some of the aforementioned strategies, you can help guide your child to sleep in a way that maintains a secure connection between you.


If you are looking for personalized support with your baby or toddler's sleep, book your free 15 minute discovery call below to see how I can help you!


Sources:

Baby-Led Sleep Certification (Sleep Coach Certification - Isla-Grace (islagrace.ca))

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