Sleep Q&A with An Expert Baby Sleep Consultant

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If you were anything like me, studying baby sleep became a full time job when you realized sleeping through the night didn't magically occur at three months, six months, nine months...

Terms like "drowsy but awake" and "gentle sleep training" and "Ferberize" and all manners of foreign language became household vernacular but the fact was I still couldn't get my baby to sleep. I was against traditional sleep training, didn't want to do cry it out, wanted to co-sleep, but I was slowly losing my mind with the sleep deprivation. My dear friend and uber talented sleep expert, Alina, of Haute Bébé, quite literally saved my life. My baby now sleeps from 6:30pm to 7am and takes two naps a day. Some of you may feel an emotional reaction to the idea of sleep training. I understand that and totally respect it. I am by no means saying that sleep training is for everyone but it was the right fit for our family. Whatever you are doing that works for you is awesome and I honor that. I have definitely read blog posts by mamas who hardcore sleep trained with cry it out at three months and it was hard not to let judgment creep in. I know you may feel that here, too. Just remember we are all doing our very best and for many, their baby will never sleep through the night or take regular naps without some guidance. That guidance can be a lifeline; it certainly was for me.

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Sleep is a major struggle for so many of us mamas. Especially mamas who feel strongly about using a gentle approach. Alina gets that. One of my favorite things she told me was that ultimately I had to follow my mama gut and I would know when she was fussing versus really crying out for help. This was really empowering and made me realize I wasn't working with your everyday sleep coach. Not to mention she texted me after every nap and every morning. It was like having a sleep coach BFF to get us through it. She believes in sleep conditioning. It's gentle and it works! So obviously I had to sit down with her to ask some questions for this community. Read on for some sleep wisdom!

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How do you determine when baby (and mama!) are ready for sleep training?

Readiness is a very complex subject when it comes to sleep training. First and foremost the parent needs to be emotionally ready to sleep train. From a biological standpoint, babies are ready to sleep train anywhere between 4 and 6 months of age. As a newborn care specialist, I’ve worked with many babies that were sleeping through the night by 8 or 12 weeks. All it took was sleep conditioning from birth. Sleep conditioning is different from sleep training. Sleep conditioning refers to the process of establishing healthy sleep habits from the very beginning while following a baby’s natural eat-sleep rhythm. It applies to babies younger than 4 months and it never involves letting the baby cry. Sleep training refers to fixing sleep issues after 4-6 months of age. Most babies who are sleep conditioned from birth won’t need sleep training or if they do it is always is a smooth process.

Sleep can look very different from one family to another. Only you, as a parent, can determine if you are dealing with a sleep problem. If you are unhappy with how you and your baby are sleeping, maybe it’s time to consider sleep training. Keep in mind that sleep training is an extremely general term. Sleep training covers anything from complete extinction methods to gentle no-cry methods. It all depends on your family’s sleep goals.

What does a mama of a reflux baby do if sleep training isn’t yet an option?

Babies who struggle with extreme acid reflux or colic are difficult to sleep condition so parents usually find themselves sleep deprived and desperate very early on. These babies will reach 4-6 months with very few or no self soothing skills at all so sleep training will become a necessity at one point or another. Until your baby is ready to sleep train there are a few things that you can do to survive those tough first months. First and foremost, enlist all the help you could possibly get. Dad, relatives, friends, or hire night support if your budget allows it. Don’t try to be a hero. Instead, do everything you can to maintain your sanity. Keep your baby fed and rested. Follow your baby’s cues and make naps a priority. Your refluxy baby may not be thrilled to lay flat on her back so you will have to adapt. Swing? Baby carrier? Mama’s chest? Make those naps happen because a somewhat rested baby is a lot easier to manage than an exhausted baby. Next, make sure you minimize all other discomfort your baby may be dealing with, like gas. Burp, burp, burp and practice paced feedings if you bottle feed. Keep the environment calm and avoid bright lights in the evenings. Your baby will most likely be easily irritable so don’t add to the problem. If your baby is hard to soothe to sleep, take her into a dark room, crank up the white noise, rock and shush. Maintain your calm because a frazzled mama will only make for an even more frazzled baby. So get your zen on and cuddle your baby closely.

Can you share the sleep requirements for different ages with us?

There aren’t any solid research studies out there that prove a certain length of sleep, just general guidelines. Different babies will have different sleep needs. However, I want to point out that sleep quality is so much more important than sleep quantity. For instance, a baby who sleeps 11 solid hours at night will be much more rested than a baby who sleep 13 fragmented hours.

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A lot of mamas want to do gentle sleep training because the crying is hard on them. What do you think the crying during sleep training means?

I would honestly be more concerned if a mama enjoyed her baby’s crying. The crying is often part of the sleep training process but it isn’t mandatory. It depends a lot on the situation and on the mom’s goals, on a baby’s self-soothing skills, and on mom’s level of commitment. A faster process will always involve some degree of crying. Any baby that will experience abrupt change will protest. However, sleep training can be done gently and gradually over a few months and it can involve very little to no crying. Older babies will put more of a fight because they understand more.

I always encourage moms to listen to their baby’s cries. That is your baby’s way to communicate. I teach moms the difference between making noise, fussing, mad crying, and alarm crying (alarm crying should never ever be ignored). We monitor the length of each type of cry and we adapt the plan as we go once we see how the baby responds. This is why sleep training will never be a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. 

What would you tell a mama who is hesitant to sleep train but their babe isn’t sleeping well at all and the baby is ready?

It depends where the hesitation is coming from. I always have a heart-to-heart conversation with the moms who come to me. I think the most important thing these mamas don’t realize is how crucial sleep is for a baby’s health and development. We live in a society where the real importance of sleep is overlooked. We tend to stay up way too late, wake up way too early, and we wear the lack of sleep as a badge of honor. After all the reading and research I’ve done on sleep or lack thereof, I really came to understand what a colossal impact sleep has on our health. More so on a baby’s health. 

I like to compare sleep to food. It’s basically the same thing. Food helps your baby’s body get big and strong while sleep helps your baby’s brain develop properly. They go hand-in-hand. Would you deprive your baby of nutritious food? Probably not. Then why deprive your baby of sleep? Sleep is where the magic happens. During sleep hours your baby grows, develops, and solidifies information and skills. And again we are talking about quality over quantity because poor fragmented sleep is pretty much like junk food. Now would you allow your child to eat junk food for every meal? I didn’t think so!

Other hesitant mothers know the value of sleep and would like to help their baby sleep better but they are afraid of the unknown. They aren’t sure what sleep training entails, they imagine their baby crying for hours on end, and they are afraid that they won’t be able to do it on their own. In this case I try to determine what their goals are, and explain the options. There are options for everyone. Well… except for those with unrealistic expectations who want it done yesterday with no effort! I’m still looking for that magic wand that will finally solve all sleep problems overnight.

You call sleep regressions “sleep progressions.” Can you explain what these are and when they happen?

Oh, yes! Let’s talk about the big scary “R” word! If you are a parent I’m sure you are very familiar with the term sleep regression. The first sleep regression parents face is the 4-month sleep regression. That time when your perfect sleeper went from 6-hour stretches to waking every hour or so demanding to be soothed back to sleep. If you know what I’m talking about, you probably stocked up on concealer and coffee during this time.

I call the 4-month sleep regression “sleep progression” because what actually happens during this time is good! It may not seem that way, but your baby’s sleep is actually maturing. I’m not going to go very in depth about the anatomy of a sleep cycle but most of us think of sleep of an on-or-off situation but it’s actually not. Sleep actually has a number of different stages, and they make up the “sleep cycle,” which we go through several times a night.

Very briefly, the mature sleep cycle has three light stages of sleep and one deep sleep stage. A newborn baby’s sleep cycle has only two stages of sleep. One deep and one light, and they spend about 50% of the time in each stage. At four months, babies’ sleep matures and they switch to a 4-stage sleep cycle that will continue for the rest of their lives. So now, they have to adjust to two extra light sleep stages. They go from 50% of the time spent in deep sleep to only 25%. The rest of 75% of the time will be spent in a light sleep stage that will automatically trigger more frequent wakings.

It is crucial for a baby to learn self-soothing skills in order to be able to transition between all of these sleep stages and sleep cycles without fully waking. Unfortunately, this is an acquired skill, not an innate one. After the 4-month sleep regression which is the real deal, there are a few other sleep regressions that are simply bumps in the road caused by developmental milestones. We see these most often around 9 months, 12 months, and 18 months. There can also be setbacks caused by travel, illness, teething, or changes in a baby’s environment. That’s why my relationship with my clients never ends!

Can a cosleeping family sleep train?

Absolutely! There are many cosleeping variations. Some families happily bed share well into toddlerhood, other families choose a sidecar crib, other families choose to room share but not bed share, other families have a huge family bed, etc. Every situation will be unique but families who choose to cosleep aren’t doomed to a lifetime of sleep deprivation. 

Can you describe your process when you work with a family? 

The very first step is to learn about that client’s story. I have a lengthy sleep assessment questionnaire that gives me the whole picture. Sleep training is never only about sleep. There are so many factors that come into play. Before any initial consultation I gather the details about the baby’s development, diet, schedule, environment, parent’s goals and parenting style, and so much more. Once I have all the details, I schedule an initial consultation. During this consultation I get to meet the family. This way I can see where the baby is at developmentally, and I gather more details as I ask important questions. All of these details are like the puzzle pieces of a big beautiful picture and they help me come up with a sleep training plan that will fit the family’s needs, goals, and parenting style, as well as the baby’s personality.

Once we have the plan we can get to work. During the process I am in constant contact with the family. I check in for every nap and bedtime because I have to know how things progress in order to sleep train efficiently. It takes the guesswork out for the parent and I can determine if any changes need to be made. Not every baby will respond to the initial plan and not every parent will be able to follow through with the initial plan. In this case I adjust the plan as needed. Once the baby is sleeping well, we give each other a virtual high-five and I check in regularly to see how things are going, to adjust the schedule as the baby grows, to fix sleep issues that may arise, or to just say hi! I usually get very close with my clients and we become friends because we get to work together during one of (probably) the hardest times they will face as parents. I know this isn’t an easy process so I do everything in my power to be there for them and offer the support and encouragement they need.

How long does sleep training usually take?

It really depends on the family, their goals, the approach we choose. It can take as little as three days or it can take months. A gentle approach will always take more time, but if this is what the family needs, I’m happy to support them in any way I can. Some families don’t have months… they are sleep deprived and desperate so they choose to rip the bandaid. Most non-extreme cases take somewhere between one to three weeks. A baby older than one year will take about three weeks to completely solidify a new habit.

Do you recommend training for naps and nights at the same time?

For babies older than six months, yes. I like to practice good napping habits with younger babies as well but I don’t push too much because their naps don’t mature enough until around 6 months when they develop the ability to link sleep cycles.

What are the most common issues you see in nurseries that inhibit good baby sleep?

Light! Light is my nemesis! I can’t emphasize enough how important a dark room is! And when I say dark, I’m talking about cave-dark. Yes, you may trip over a thing or two but please block out the light if you want to maximize your baby’s sleep.

Next on my list would be not using white noise or poor quality white noise. Not all white noise machines are created equally. Some (read most) have recorded, loopy sound. These machines will defeat the purpose because they are stimulating to the brain. Choose a good quality white noise machine (I am a big fan of LectroFan) that will help your baby stay in a deeper sleep for longer. And crank it up! Especially if you are trying to soothe a fussy baby.

Mobiles over the crib are another thing I advise against. They can be stimulating and prevent the baby from going to sleep.

I hope this helps you on your sleep journey. As you can see there is no one size fits all approach but there is help out there if you need it. If you want to get in touch with Alina, you can e-mail her at alina@myhautebebe.com or check out her website for for more information!