Most new parents are familiar with the delirium that comes with loving a newborn. Senses are heightened and you exist in a state where survival, for you and the baby, is all that matters. Waking every few hours to fill a tiny tummy time after time after time is trying, even as it comes with moments of complete peace and happiness.
The artist in me enjoyed this altered state. The mom in me loved the quiet nights where my only concern was feeding my child and holding him close. During those late-night feedings, I often felt like my baby and I were the only two people awake in the universe.
But the more practical side of me knew that the sleep deprivation was not sustainable. When my third child was about 11 months old, I reached a state of desperation. I hadn't slept for more than a few hours in a row for so long that I didn't have the patience to parent my other young children. I regularly did things like lock myself out of the car, or place my sunglasses in the freezer. My caffeine consumption reached new and concerning heights, but it barely made a difference.
My first child was a great sleeper and at 4 months old moved seamlessly from her bedside co-sleeper to a crib, where she slept through the night after just a few pats and shushes the first week. My second child was more challenging, but slept for longer stretches earlier than his little sister ever seemed to.
I had no plan, so I muddled through each day, dragging my children to the playground, where I preferred to sit on a bench with the baby and watch. Then another mom struck up a conversation with me at the playground. She was like me in many ways, but lacked the dark circles under her eyes and the haggard look that I now wore regularly.
It turned out that mom, Jessica Dodson, was a sleep coach and founder of Starlight Sleep Coaching. I had no idea that sleep coaches existed, much less what they did. I favored attachment parenting and was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of using a sleep coach at first, but I was also convinced that a few good nights of sleep would transform my outlook on life and make me a better mother. So I gave Dodson's gentle sleep training a try.
To start, she talked me through how she planned to teach me to train my child to sleep through the night. She taught me how to ensure my daughter felt comforted and knew that I was nearby.
We went slowly, first getting my daughter used to a new room and her crib and a new lovey before trying to get her to sleep through the night. Dodson came up with a written plan, answered my questions, and reassured me that I would still have lots of time to snuggle with my daughter - during the day. She checked in every morning to see how things went, and we took things day by day in terms of deciding to stick with the plan or make changes. Being accountable to Dodson helped as well. I felt as though we were a team.
The first couple of nights were tough. My daughter cried and my shushes and pats did little to calm her. But the tears subsided, and in about a week we were both sleeping through the night. I was a new person and a much better mother, with more patience and energy. I was happier being able to go out at night with my husband or friends, and more productive than I had been in a long time. My daughter, who was also getting better sleep, was happier, too. And best of all, my daughter's good sleep habits stuck.
Since then, I have had another child, another terrible sleeper, and Dodson and I are working on a plan.
Here are some signs that you should consider hiring a sleep coach.
- Your pediatrician thinks your baby is ready to begin sleeping through the night. Younger babies cannot successfully learn sleep habits, and older children with sleep issues typically require a different approach than sleep coaches provide. Most pediatricians think babies are ready for sleep training at 4 months old, but Dodson believes parents should wait until babies are 5 or 6 months old.
- You are unhappy with your child's sleeping habits. Even if your child is waking several times a night, or not staying in her own bed, if everyone is happy it isn't a problem. Moreover, if you don't think there is a problem, you likely won't have the commitment needed to follow through on a coach's plan.
- You are not sure where to start. There is a lot of advice about sleep training and, sometimes, a lot of conflicting information. It can be especially difficult to know what to do in situations that are not fully addressed in all books, such as sharing a room with siblings or parents. There are many options between letting a child cry it out and doing nothing. A sleep coach can help you find the best approach for your family.
- Nothing you have tried has worked. Many parents successfully tackle sleep training on their own. Other parents wait to see if their child naturally develops better sleep habits. If nothing has worked, it may be time to enlist a professional who can develop an individualized plan.
- You have the right conditions to be successful. Travel or the holidays may disrupt children's sleep habits and schedules, so it's best to do sleep training when your child will be on his regular schedule for at least a few weeks. It's also best not to have visitors while you are sleep training, because observers may make parents feel self-conscious and the extra activity and disruption in routine can disrupt a child's sleep. Try not to have any big commitments during at least the first week of sleep training; you and your child may be very tired initially.
- You disagree with your partner about the best approach. For many of the families Dodson works with, the biggest challenge is creating a plan with which both parents are comfortable.
- You start to resent your child and/or feel trapped. This is most common with babies who nurse to sleep and/or co-sleep. When a parent has to be with the baby every night in order for her to go to sleep, they start to feel trapped, and that can lead to resentment toward your baby and/or partner.
- You are so tired that it's unsafe to drive, or other daily functions are impaired.
There is no one right answer when it comes to sleep. For some families, co-sleeping and night nursing may work well for years. Other families may need their child to sleep through the night as soon as possible. Just know that if you need help, it is out there.