A Baby Sleep Trainer's Top Dos and Don'ts of Getting Little Ones to Really Snooze
Photos: Baby Sleep Trainer
Before becoming mothers, most of us expected that sleep would probably not be part of the equation. Those first three or four foggy months seem like a blur until finally, baby's first smile instantly melts away memories of sleepless days and nights (oh, and the many attempts to take a shower). One thing many parents don't anticipate (myself included!) is the very real struggle of sleep training — something that many well-rested parents swear by.
Of course, all babies are different — some snooze as soon as their head hits the pillow (hallelujah!), while others need a little bit more coaching to fall and stay asleep through the night. Then there are the various methods: There's the most well-known (and controversial) Cry It Out, the Ferber Method (which minimizes the amount of crying), the "camping out" method, and the list goes on — and navigating through all of these sleep training types can be just as frustrating.
That's why we asked professional baby sleep trainer Natalie Willes to demystify the daunting process for us. After having her first child, the LA-based expert and author became obsessed with her own daughter's sleep habits, she says, which eventually led her to discover a natural talent of getting babies and toddlers to hit the haystack.
"I had my first child when I was quite young and my husband was in his second year of law school. I always had beautiful visions of being an active, stay-at-home mother," she tells us. "When I faced the reality of what it meant to remain at home, I think my brain just kind of wigged out. I desperately wanted to be satisfied with remaining at home and focusing on my child, but I think my brain operates on such a level that I have to have multiple things going on at once, and I don't think I knew that about myself before I had a kid," she explains.
Her obsession with baby sleep eventually led to a career helping little ones (and their parents) get a full night's rest, and she offers in-person consultations as well as an online training series. Here, the five star-rated pro shares her top tips on the topic, from the common road blocks that parents face, the ideal age to start training, why parents should never feel like "failures" if they can't get their little ones to sleep, and more. Read on below, and follow her on Facebook here.
First, tell us about yourself — how did you discover that you were a baby sleep "whisperer"?
I became fixated, not in a super healthy way, with my daughter's sleep habits. I learned so much about infant sleep that I began to help other people via forums and blogs online. Pretty soon friends of friends started to hear that I seemed to have a knack for helping babies fall asleep and pretty soon I was getting calls from people all over the country with questions about their kid's sleep. One of my close friends (Who had branched out on her own and started her own business) encouraged me to begin a sleep coaching business, and I didn't think I was qualified to do that. She was not the first person to suggest that, but I just didn't think that anyone would want to hire me.
Anyway, she offered to trade designing my website for me if I helped her sleep train her baby. I agreed, and the rest is a sort of history. I think I have largely been successful because I truly and genuinely care about the families I work with and their children. There's success is very much my success. It has never been, and will probably never be, about the money. So, I think people sense that sincerity in me and that desire to help them succeed in a time when things are very very challenging for them.
When's an ideal age to start sleep training?
This is a two-part answer. First, is making sure the parent is aware of what the training requires and that they feel that they are ready to take that on. Second, the child needs to be at least 16 weeks old counting from their estimated due date. It is also never too late to sleep train, but generally speaking it's a good idea to take care of this issue before a child reaches toddlerhood. it is still possible to train after a child is a toddler, but different challenges present themselves at that age.
What are the top three common road blocks to sleep training?
Without a doubt the number one road block to sleep training is parents being absolutely paralyzed by the prospect of their child crying. It's interesting, because children suffer so much more when we are not sleeping properly, to say nothing of the anguish parents are suffering from lack of sleep, but the concept of allowing your child to cry in order to figure out how to fall sleep on their own just keep so many people from pursuing sleep training.
Second would be information overload. There are simply so many conflicting theories and methods out there that parents feel overwhelmed, and combining being overwhelmed with sleep deprivation makes them unable to decide what to do.
Third would be lack of support. I always say that sleep training is the single least intuitive part of parenting, so even when parents finally are able to decide on a method and begin to implement it, they have questions as the process goes on and then don't have anyone to ask, and so they end up making mistakes that they don't realize they're making because they don't have anyone supporting them through the process.
What are the top three tell-tale signs (or a common scenario) in which parents should really consider hiring a baby sleep expert like yourself?
I am going to be honest here. I appreciate the use of the term "parents", but in reality, in almost every scenario of the over 3,000 families I have worked with, it is mom who is principally implementing the sleep training program, and it is also mom who is primarily affected by the crying that ends up occurring through the process. So, I am going to answer the question focused primarily on mothers.
First, if a mom feels very overwhelmed and doesn't know what to do, that is a great time to seek out a sleep coach they feel they jive with personally. Second, and this applies to everyone, if a parent feels that doing sleep training in a super efficient manner is important, a sleep coach is a great choice. A good sleep coach will ensure that your child spends the least amount of time crying as possible.
Finally, if a family has the means to hire a coach, it is always a good idea to do so. A good sleep coach not only guides you through the sleep training process itself, but also helps parents learn how to maintain good sleep habits over the long term it. This last reason is why I created my online video training series. I have purposely kept my price for a one-on-one consultation as low as I possibly can. But I know that working with me personally is it still out of many peoples' budgets, so I worked very hard and invested quite a bit of money into creating an online training series that would be affordable to pretty much anyone.
The truth is that in almost every circumstance, it is challenging to be successful with sleep training without some form of hands on support, so I hope that my online training series and the book I just published can help people be successful without having to hire coach for a one on one consultation.
What's your response to parents who feel like they've "failed" if they have to hire outside help for their baby's sleep?
If I am going to be completely honest, I think that feeling like that is silly. People don't think they're failures when they go to a doctor because they are very ill, or when they hire someone to paint their house, so [parents shouldn't] feel like a failure for turning to an expert to help them figure out how to get their kid to sleep.
As an example, I am on vacation right now, but I am still interacting with my clients. I am a literal expert in this field and I eat, sleep, and breath sleep training. I don't think parents are failures for not hiring a sleep coach, if anything, not hiring a coach when you know you need one could be seen as a parenting misstep.
What's your take on the cry it out method, and why is it so controversial?
There is so much scientific data on the subject that I don't really understand why it's still controversial, but, I will say that I have worked personally with thousands of families and I have never once ever had a family tell me that they believe that any crying their child did during sleep training was harmful in the short or long term. And, if one believes that crying in and of itself is harmful, which it is absolutely not, but if a parent believe that, I can assure anyone who has that concern that long-term sleep deprivation is extremely harmful to their child's physical and mental well-being, so, even if a parent is concerned about crying causing any harm, lack of sleep is ultimately one of the most harmful things for the human body to endure.
When hiring a sleep trainer, what are a few ways that parents can determine if they're reputable?
A lot of sleep coaches are "certified" and I myself am certified, but I don't believe that certifications hold nearly as much weight as hands-on experience. Checking out a coach's reviews and perhaps interviewing families they have worked with is very important. Nowadays many sleep coaches have social media followings, so checking out their Facebook page, for example, is also a good idea. I do Facebook Live Q and A's a few times each month, I write a lot of blog posts, and I have hundreds of reviews online.
I would hope that by the time my clients find me, they already have a good sense of who I am as a person and also a good sense of how other parents feel about working with me. Most coaches will do a free 15-minute introductory call before they set up a formal consultation, so parents making sure they get a good sense of what is going to happen during the sleep training process is also very important.
Finally, it is vital that parents get a very clear idea of how their coach will work with them throughout the follow up support period. Find out exactly how often your coach will respond to you, also find out how they reply, whether it is via email or text or phone calls, and make sure that that is something that you're comfortable with.
Lastly, what are your top dos and don'ts for parents who are starting the sleep training process on their own, and what's the most common method?
I would say that all forms of sleep training are cry it out — many experts and sleep coaches use euphemisms to describe their proprietary methods, but at the end of the day it's always some form of putting your child down awake and then ideally allowing them to fall asleep on their own, and using some form of comfort and interaction in between when you put them down and when they fall asleep. Having said that, the seemingly most common method is Dr. Ferber's. This is putting baby down awake, then doing in-person checks at increasingly longer intervals.
As far as my dos and don'ts:
1. DO your research and create a plan. Make sure you know how your going to put your baby down for bedtime, how you plan on checking on them until they fall asleep, how you will respond when they wake, whether or not you will feed them, and how you will train for naps.
2. DON'T only sleep train at night and not for naps (or vice versa). This can be extremely confusing for babies and almost always causes way more crying overall, as well as a lack of consistent progress for the child.
3. DON'T give up. Just because something doesn't seem to be working right away, make sure to stay the course for at least 7 to 10 days. Sleep training often requires a fair amount of time.
4. DO know when to reach out for help. Truly, there are so many options out there to work with coaches (or do things like take an online training series at an affordable prices), so that you're not going through this process alone.