PARENTING
04/26/2016 03:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Birth of a Profession: How I Became an Infant and Toddler Sleep Coach

When my first son was born, eight years ago, it seemed like he never slept. Sleep deprivation makes the details fuzzy, and may even exaggerate my tale a bit, but what I know for sure is my beautiful blue-eyed wonder never offered me the "blissful nights" many sleep books promised me if I followed their steps. Maybe he read different versions? He just didn't get the sleep thing. I didn't either, I guess. Good thing he was cute.

As my sleep deprivation accumulated, so did his. At the time, I could have written this now viral post about the confusing, contradictory, compilations of generic sleep advice. What I longed for was a lifeline--someone who could sympathize with my plight and just tell me what do to; I was willing to try anything, as long as it worked to help him sleep better.

At the time, I seemed to be in an eternal daze. I felt incoherent on work calls and had trouble concentrating on my projects. More than once, I exited the elevator on the wrong floor, marching all the way to someone else's door before realizing my misstep. I forgot appointments and birthdays and keys. My husband slept on the couch so I could try taking my son into bed with me out of desperation. Because I was terrified I would suffocate him, I lost more sleep. I felt successful at nothing. Though I am an eternal optimist, I saw no light at the end of this dark tunnel. I remember warning my husband, "This is it on the kid front. I can't do this again."

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Copyright: olesiabilkei / 123RF Stock Photo

Then my epiphany happened. It occurred in the middle of his 9th month - after 273 days of interrupted sleep, pacing, changing, nursing, rocking, bouncing, every few hours, every night - that at 2:00 a.m., after his 4th waking for the night, I abruptly decided not to tend to him. My husband, always more than willing to do his share of night time swaying, was on board. I rolled over and prayed to the sleep lords that my little angel would just fall asleep. At first, the crying ebbed and flowed and then it stopped completely. And just like the pains of childbirth, over the next few months, those sleepless nights eventually became a distant memory.

A few years ago, when I had an itch to start a business after a career as a medical director in healthcare technology, that prolonged sleepless nightmare gave me an idea. If I could serve as the helpline I wish I had had to families struggling with their children's sleep, then I could make a difference in people's lives in a significant way. Already armed with an M.D., and my own personal experiences, I began to take courses, attend conferences, talk to child sleep experts, and completed a pediatric sleep certification program. My mission: to educate and guide families to instill healthy sleep habits in their own children and to help alleviate that sleepless stress that consumed me for so long with my first child.

What I have learned through helping my own three children (I didn't stop at one as I had announced!) as well as thousands of families all over the world are four basics principles:

  1. Sleep deprivation is a global problem, in both adults and in children.
  2. Sleep issues in infants and toddlers and preschoolers are fixable with the right recipe.
  3. The best approach is never "one size fits all". When someone asks me what method I use, I always answer, "It depends on your goals and your baby's temperament."
  4. Although we always aim to act in our children's best interest, sometimes as parents, we unwittingly get in the way of the solution.

The main ingredient for an uninterrupted night's sleep is the ability for children, even babies, to self-regulate. As parents, we can set them up for sleep success by guiding them to sleep in sync with circadian rhythms, encouraging routines that become powerful sleep cues, and creating a soothing sleep environment. But after we play our role, what is essential is that we step back and allow babies and young children time and space to do the work of falling asleep independently. If we step in too often or with too much engagement, we rob them of the opportunity to sooth themselves and, unintentionally, create sleep crutches.

My role as an infant and toddler sleep specialist and coach is to empower families to make small changes in their routines that can transform their nights, their family dynamic, their relationships, their children's behavior and even ongoing child development. And often my advice is to do less rather than more. And the reward is more than just a good night's sleep for all: it's better relationships, well-rested children, improved parent-child bonds, and increased productivity at work, and even more quality time together once the stress around sleep is eliminated.