Sleep problems: Parents are often confounded by the phrase “sleep like a baby.” Because, well, babies often don’t sleep. Or they sleep odd hours with lengthy night wake-ups until sometime in grade school.
There are countless books and websites devoted to the subject of helping babies and kids sleep better and ameliorating sleep problems. But sometimes the blanket approaches of these guides don’t fit the idiosyncratic habits of a particular kid. And a book offers little moral support when it’s 2 am, the baby is crying and you’re questioning your “plan” (and sanity) once again.
Given that sleep is so crucial yet sometimes so elusive, is it any wonder a whole industry has sprung up around it? Sleep consultants, or sleep coaches, promise an expert hand in helping babies and children get better, more consistent sleep at night and during naps.
Costs for their services vary depending on the extent of communication (which typically takes place via text, call, Skype or home visits) and level of involvement, which can range from solving simple scheduling issues to creating individualized plans. A brief consultation is typically free, whereas a customized plan (which usually comes with at least two more weeks of continued support) can cost several hundred dollars or more.
Sleep consultants are not for everyone. But for some, the reassurance, expertise and quick results (typically) can be invaluable.
“We don’t expect babies to learn anything else quickly. Rolling over, sitting, standing: Those all come with lots of practice. Sleep is the same,” says Seattle sleep consultant Rebecca Michi (childrenssleepconsultant.com)
Here, she and two other consultants provide some of their most effective sleep tips for children having sleep problems, and even for those who sleep well already. While some seem obvious, they say that most parents who seek their help overlook many of these basic — and best — practices.
Create a bedtime routine and stick to it. This can be as straightforward as a bath, a book and a song before bed, says Shannon Glenn (sleepwellchildren.com), a sleep consultant based in Idaho who has worked with more than 300 Seattle families in the past six years. The routine helps cue the child that sleep is on the way, she says. She recommends keeping the routine the same for each naptime, minus the bath.
Check your child’s sleep environment. Creating the proper environment for sleep is half the battle, says Sarah Oliver (saraholiverconsultancy.com), a Seattle sleep consultant. She recommends that children sleep in the pitch-dark for naps and nighttime sleep from birth (unless lights for jaundice are required). White-noise machines are effective for canceling out outside noise and mimicking the sound of the womb, but she recommends that the sound not exceed 50 decibels. And she says the room should be kept between 68 and 70 degrees.
Use a swaddle or wearable blanket. All three experts say that infants have a strong startle reflex and benefit from a secure swaddle. They recommend transitioning to a wearable blanket or “sleep sack” for older babies who have outgrown the swaddle but aren’t old enough for blankets.
Bedtime, wake time, and even meals should be consistent. Each of the consultants recommended predictable time ranges for waking up, eating, playing outside and sleeping throughout the day. The predictability helps children learn when to expect sleep — and it also helps older babies regularly eat enough calories in the day, that nighttime feedings aren’t necessary.
Listen for when your baby is fussing versus crying. Many new parents don’t know the difference between frustrated fussing noises and distress cries, Michi says. As a result, they hear a cry and rush to pick the baby up. She recommends getting to know your child’s cry. If they’re just fussing, try leaving the baby alone to see if he or she will go back to sleep on their own. And when you hear the distress cry: “Don’t over-help. Go in and give as much help as they need,” she says. Sometimes this could just be sitting in the room or making shushing sounds. Other times, they may need to be patted, fed or held, she says. Some sleep experts, including Glenn, take a slightly different approach, and recommend allowing the child to cry for a few minutes — whether a distress or a fuss cry — giving them the opportunity to comfort themselves before intervening.
Know when to get help. Even with consistent sleep habits, sleep issues can arise that parents don’t feel equipped to handle. If that’s the case, hiring a sleep consultant may be a good option. Check their training and approach, interview them to ensure it’s a good fit, and explore different levels of options. Sleep consultants offer a variety of services, from low-cost coffee chats with parent groups to comprehensive and individualized plans. “I’ve seen so many parents struggle. Their marriage starts to suffer, or they resent each other … getting sleep can give them their life back,” Oliver says.
Your sleep questions answered
Our panel of sleep consultants tackled a few of our readers’ questions
Q: When I try to transfer my 4-week-old from sleep-induced feeding to his co-sleeper around 10 pm, he wakes up immediately and gets upset until we pick him up again. It typically takes several hours to get him to sleep initially and then we repeat that process again in the night or early morning. Help!
Shannon Glenn: I recommend a 20- to 30-minute bedtime routine: Feed and burp while he’s awake, then change diapers and get him in pajamas. Read a book, sing a song, swaddle him, offer cuddles and kisses, then lay him down awake but drowsy.
Aim for the baby to sleep after 45 to 60 minutes of awake time. That means bedtime can vary from night to night for newborns, but I recommend a bedtime after 9 pm.
When he wakes up for the day in the morning — ideally 10 to 12 hours after bedtime — make sure he gets 5 or 10 minutes of daylight exposure to help set his circadian rhythm. Similarly, when he wakes at night be sure to keep lights low or off.
Newborn sleep is often inconsistent and unpredictable. I recommend getting as much help as you can in those first 12 weeks!
Q: My 3½-month-old has one long stretch of sleep starting around 7 pm. Could I wake her up to feed her when I go to bed around 9 or 10 pm, to try to move her long stretch of sleep to while I’m sleeping?
Rebecca Michi: We all get our longest, deepest stretch of sleep at the beginning of the night, so it’s good to see that she is doing that.
You could introduce a “dream feed” before you go to bed, where you get your child out of bed, offer a feeding, burp her and put her right back down to sleep. The feed will certainly help if she is waking due to hunger at the first wake-up, and she may be able to get another good stretch of sleep. It will also help reset her sleep cycle, and she will go into a deeper sleep having restarted the sleep cycle. Try for at least three nights before deciding if this works.
Q: My 2-year-old is still taking 2½-to-3-hour naps each afternoon, pushing his bedtime to 10 pm. He wakes between 7 and 8 am. Overall, he’s sleeping about 11 to 12 hours a day, but the split is driving me nuts! How can I shorten the nap so he goes to sleep earlier?
Sarah Oliver: I recommend starting his day at 7 am and offering a nap at 12:30 or 1 pm. Cap this nap to about 2 hours so he’s awake by 2:30 or 3 pm. (And yes, wake him up if necessary to keep his sleep schedule on track!)
That should allow for an earlier bedtime of 7 pm, which is age-appropriate for a 2-year-old. Toddlers thrive on routine, and by being consistent you should see improvement in 5 to 7 days.
This story was originally published on April 30, 2017.