Last fall, the sleep situation in Rebecca David’s household seemed hopeless. Two-year-old Solomon, co-sleeping with his parents, babbled loudly and flung his arms around most of the night. Meanwhile, four-month-old Noah was sometimes in his bassinet but mostly also in the family bed, nursing or snuggling. Both woke up constantly and weren’t in any hurry to close their eyes again. “Sleep was a mess,” recalls Rebecca, who lives in Langley, BC. “I was desperate.”
She had resigned herself to zombie status when she met a mom who’d hired a “sleep coach” and reported that her baby now slept like a champ. Rebecca investigated, and that night, she told her husband, Blesson, that she was interested—but that it was pricey. “How much—like $5,000?” he asked. A year-long contract, she told him, which would cover both boys, was $850. His reply: “What are you waiting for?”
There was a time when, if your baby refused to sleep, you asked your mom for help or read a book. If that failed, you rocked and shushed all night, dreaming of a future of uninterrupted sleep.
But today, many families are taking a more proactive approach, turning to sleep coaches to help them teach their kids to get to sleep and stay that way. Maybe your once-great sleeper is now up all night, or a vacation in a new time zone has messed up bedtime. Or maybe your kid simply never learned to fall and stay asleep without tons of help. In person or by phone, text, email or Skype, sleep coaches—also called sleep consultants, trainers or doulas—show you how to solve these issues.
With fees ranging from $100 to $1,000, there’s a camp that considers sleep coaches a ridiculous expense—a service aimed at privileged, lazy parents. But they’re popular because they work. “If the books and your mom aren’t enough,” says Alanna McGinn of Good Night Sleep Site in Burlington, Ont., “that’s when you come to us.”
Still, these helpers come with a few catches. For one thing, this is an unregulated industry, so you should be careful about who you hire. When you do find the right expert, you should be prepared to do what the coach recommends—and lots of parents just can’t. Meaning you could well hire someone who absolutely transforms your nights. Or not.
The Davids were willing to take the risk. Nanny-turned-sleep-coach Dawn Whittaker had the couple fill out a questionnaire, visited their apartment and created a 20-page plan for baby Noah. For two weeks, the family adjusted his feeding schedule and made his room darker. Then, one night, Blesson put the baby down in his crib and walked out.
Every five minutes, he returned and offered soothing words and loving back pats. After 25 minutes of what Rebecca calls “protest crying,” Noah drifted off and slept for seven hours. “That was the longest he’d ever slept,” she says. “We were so happy.” By night four, Noah was closing his eyes without a peep. The family also got Noah’s naps back on track, even syncing up his afternoon snooze with his big brother’s. They’re still working on Solomon’s nighttime sleep, but the Davids are seeing progress.
What to expect
Contact a sleep coach and you’ll likely get a free mini-consultation. That initial chat lets you see if your philosophies mesh.
If you sign on, you’ll provide information about your kid, usually via a questionnaire, a sleep diary and a long conversation. This rules out health issues (a good coach will send you to a doctor if there are red flags) and determines which approach should work best. The coach may ask you to slowly begin making changes to your baby’s feeding schedule, nap and bedtime routine.
Finally, the actual training begins. Methods vary (see “Cry Baby,” below), but the result should be a baby who can fall asleep on his own and sleep through the night. (Whittaker says most babies can sleep through the night with one feed once they weigh 14 pounds.) Training takes about a week, give or take; toddlers and preschoolers take longer. Ironing out naps might run you another few weeks.
Throughout the training, the coach is available to answer questions and offer encouragement. “Support is 90 percent of the process,” says McGinn.
When training fails
Sleep coaches are no panacea. Training can fail thanks to inexperienced consultants, parents who don’t follow through or kids who are teething, have a cold, have extra-challenging temperaments or are too young (most experts recommend waiting until baby has reached at least four months old).
Sleep training didn’t work well for Megan Lester. Before training, she was sitting on the floor beside her son Griffin’s crib and patting him to sleep for 45 minutes. When Griffin was 18 months old and Lester was pregnant with her third child, she was exhausted and needed to make a change. She found a post in a Facebook group from a sleep coach in training who was offering free services. Lester, who lives in Oakville, Ont., filled out a questionnaire, met with the coach and got sent a plan. It asked her to sit on a chair in Griffin’s room, comforting him verbally but not touching him, until he fell asleep. There was screaming, and Lester found she couldn’t handle it, eventually leaving the room before she was supposed to. “Your own child screaming is worse than anything else,” she says. This continued for several nights, until Lester caught a head cold and emailed the coach to tell her she needed a break. She never restarted. Today, almost-three-year-old Griffin is still sometimes patted to sleep, albeit only for 15 minutes, max.
Lester feels she couldn’t fully commit to the process because she didn’t fully believe in the coach’s plan. “She asked me questions about routine, but she didn’t ask about him in detail,” she says.
What will help training succeed? Trusting in your coach, sticking with the plan—and being ready. “When we work with people who aren’t ready, it doesn’t go well,” says Whittaker.
Who to hire
Choose a sleep coach the same way you’d pick a plumber or massage therapist: Ask about their training and experience, and request references. “It took me years of working with babies to be able to do what I do now,” says Debbie Fazio of Precious Moments Babeez in Burlington, Ont. “When I started seeing the term ‘sleep consultant’ seven years ago, there were maybe four in Canada. Now there are hundreds, and I’m not sure they’re all qualified.”
Some parents feel like hiring sleep help is an admission that they can’t teach their baby this supposedly natural skill. Others feel they should just suck it up and ride out the sleep deprivation, since parenting is a 24-7 job. But there’s no shame in getting help so you can all get some sleep, says Eddy Lau, chief of paediatrics at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto: “Sometimes parents need a third party to help them through.” After all, Lau says, “sleep deprivation is a form of torture.” Exhausted parents who cuddle a baby all night long are not tougher and more loving than those who get rest. Sure, sleep coaches are imperfect, and they’ll cost you, but for some parents, a great night’s sleep is priceless.
Sleep training doesn’t always mean closing the door and letting your baby wail.
A lot of parents equate the words “sleep training” with leaving their baby to cry herself to sleep. There’s a bit of truth to that, since many methods do involve at least some tears. When altering their sleep routine, “babies will always cry, because that’s what babies do,” says Vancouver sleep coach Dawn Whittaker. Sleep training asks kids to do something new and challenging, and they are likely to protest that change. The techniques that include the parent staying in the room or returning frequently trigger less crying, but they take longer. Crying it out, says Good Night Sleep Site’s Alanna McGinn, “is the quickest method—I’m not going to lie.” Sleep coaches, as well as many parents, believe firmly that the long-term benefits of a good night’s sleep outweigh the short-term drawbacks of sleep training.
Hearing your child cry isn’t easy, but Toronto paediatrician Eddy Lau says sleep training is proven to work, and there’s no solid evidence that crying harms children psychologically. “There’s a whole school of thought against allowing babies to cry,” says Lau, “but it’s not evidence based.” Whether to let your child cry during sleep training comes down to what parents feel comfortable with. If you simply can’t stomach it, then don’t do it.
A version of this article appeared in our March 2016 issue with the headline “Does your baby need a sleep coach?” p. 30.