IT'S 3 A.M. and your baby is crying. Should you pick her up from her crib and rock her? Let her cry but check on her? Feed her? An infant sleep coach would know what to do. These 21st-century experts make their living by helping parents get their babies into a healthy sleep routine with custom plans, phone calls, and overnight stays. Services can range from $50 for an online course up to $3,500 for overnight visits and a year of support. Though many of these professionals do go through training, their level of expertise varies widely. We asked four of the country's most seasoned coaches to pull back the sheets on their snooze-inducing wisdom.
"Often it's the dad who wants the mom to stop nursing the baby to sleep, while the mom feels in her gut that the baby still needs nighttime feeds," says Kim West, the Annapolis, Maryland-based author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. "I've also had scenarios where Mom wants to get on a better schedule but Dad really can't take the crying," says West (aka "The Sleep Lady"). "Whatever the reason, sleep coaching tends to be much less successful when one parent is saying, 'You created this problem, now fix it.' " Don't try to hash it out during a midnight wake-up call. Instead, book a sitter, or ask Grams to watch your baby while you come up with a plan you can both support.
Your baby's sounds might just mean he's mildly frustrated or settling in his sleep -- and checking on him can make the problem worse, especially if he wasn't awake to begin with. "After the baby turns 4 months old, we teach parents to take a breath before deciding whether to go in," says Jennifer Waldburger, cofounder of Sleepy Planet, a sleep-coaching service in Los Angeles, and coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution. Check the video monitor to reassure yourself that your baby is okay, and you may even see that his eyes are still closed. If your baby is crying out due to pain or true discomfort, you'll know by his loud wail, which will ramp up instead of quieting down.
"For every child I work with, I take into account her temperament, the parents' personalities, and their lifestyle," says Brooke Nalle, founder of Sleepy on Hudson, a sleep-coaching service for families in Dobbs Ferry, New York. "I may coach the parents to stay in the room while soothing their child back down, because some babies need to have a parent there. We work on gradually spacing out the soothing until the baby learns to do it on her own." With other infants, Nalle might have the parent leave the room after saying good night. "Sometimes having a parent there is the worst thing you can do, because it overstimulates the child," she says. "These babies need their own space instead."
Hold off on sleep training until Baby is 3 months or older, sleep experts advise, but you can create a healthy bedtime routine and naptime rituals from Day 1. "Dim the lights 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime to help bring your baby's cortisol levels down," advises Ingrid Prueher, a sleep coach in Westport, Connecticut, known as "The Baby Sleep Whisperer." Then give your baby a bath and her last feed of the day, followed by a bedtime story and a song. Do this consistently every night, and it will be easier for you to sleep train your baby when the time comes, Prueher says.
"Understandably, a lot of my clients don't want to put their child to bed as soon as they walk in from work," says Prueher. "They want to be together." But keeping Baby up can knock him off his biological sleep schedule, she says. For a 3- to 6-month-old, the sweet spot for bedtime, reports Prueher, is quite early -- about three to three and a half hours after he woke up from his last nap of the day and no later than 7 P.M. Quality over quantity, she says. "Your baby will benefit more from having you read and sing to him for 30 minutes than from staying up with you for two hours while you do things around the house."
"I encourage parents to let their little one nap during the day, because an infant who is overtired often can't settle down come bedtime," West says. This sounds counterintuitive, but think back to how wired you may have felt after pulling an all-nighter in college. An under-napped baby can get hyper and overstimulated, leading to tears and not enough shut-eye. Babies who are younger than 6 months need four to five naps a day; older babies need two to three.
Knowing your baby is eating well during the day will give you the confidence to know that she can go back to sleep at night without you having to nurse her or give her a bottle, says Nalle. "If you're breastfeeding, it's important to make a distinction between nursing from hunger versus nursing to soothe." If Baby nurses to soothe all day, then she might be hungry at night, and that keeps all of you from getting rest. Your baby is actively breastfeeding when your breasts feel empty when she's done. If she's often using your breast as a pacifier, it could be time to consider other soothers, such as rocking, patting, and shushing, Nalle says.
"Parents call me in a panic after we've worked together because now their baby is teething or has a stuffy nose," West says. Giving your baby extra comfort for a few nights won't undo your hard work -- as long as you go back to your routine as soon as she's better. "Remember that your child has proven she knows how to sleep well prior to the disruption, which means she has the ability to get back there," Prueher says.
"I find that babies who are very alert to their surroundings, such as a change in noise or temperature or their clothing, tend to have choppier sleep than more mellow babies," says Nalle. "The parents who come to me often feel judged by their family, friends, even doctors and total strangers!" West says. "I hear, 'I know I shouldn't have done X,' such as nursed him to sleep every night. 'But I didn't know what else to do!' " The good news is that all those so-called bad sleep habits can be unlearned with time. Babies -- even the sensitive ones -- are much more adaptable than we give them credit for, says Nalle. Small tweaks that you do consistently can add up to a big difference in her sleep routine.
"Banish that feeling and remind yourself that teaching your baby to snooze for long stretches at night is good for him," says Nalle. Getting the right amount of high-quality sleep will help his brain recharge so he's ready to wake up and thrive. Plus, when you're rested, your baby is safer, reminds Waldburger. "One mother called us because she had just run a red light. Another was so exhausted that she forgot she was cooking and set fire to her kitchen curtains!" There is a reason that parents during flights are instructed to put on their oxygen mask first: A well-rested, happier mama will result in a happier baby.
Clear the calendar
"The best time to sleep train is when you have at least three weeks of normal routine and no big transitions in your schedule," says Brooke Nalle, founder of Sleepy on Hudson.
Start on a Friday
"Parents tell me, 'We need the weekend to rest up before we get started,' but how are you going to do that when your baby isn't sleeping?" asks Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. "Use a weekend to sleep train so you can nap. By Monday, most parents are already in a better place."
Prepare for crying
There's really no such thing as a no-tears solution, our experts admit. "It doesn't mean your baby is suffering," says Nalle. "It means he's noticed that something's changed, and he's feeling frustrated."
Take a pause
When your baby first cries out in the night, she may simply be shifting in her sleep. "But do watch her on your monitor," says Nalle. Does she find her hand to suck on? That's a sign she might be soothing herself. Is she moving around and looking to settle? She may go back to sleep on her own. But if the crying is sustained and gets louder, you'll need to go in.
Check on him
Once your baby is 4 months old, you can wait about seven minutes before you check on him when he cries out. "But don't take him out of the crib; this is just a quick visit to rub his back and say 'I love you,' " says Nalle. Gradually increase the length of time between each check by a few minutes, waiting up to 15 minutes between checks for a 6-month-old. If you stick with this consistently every night, your baby will learn to fall asleep independently.
Remind yourself that the first few nights are the hardest, but your efforts will pay off. Act calm -- babies are sponges and will pick up on your stress, says Jennifer Waldburger, cofounder of Sleepy Planet. Take some deep breaths and tag-team with your partner so you both get a little rest.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American Baby magazine.
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