Why Do I Help Parents Teach Their Children How to Sleep?

In the parenting community, there are a number of, what I think of as, “hot button topics.” Whether or not to vaccinate or circumcise your children, should your child wear a puffy coat in their car seat, should or shouldn’t you breastfeed and for how long, and whether or not to sleep train your child. Land on any parenting Facebook group and you can find long threads dedicated to these topics that can sometimes erupt into ugly name-calling and mom shaming. I often reflect on how these issues of health and safety can be so hotly contested, but as anyone parenting in this day and age can tell you, there are a million books and experts out there who will provide you with all of their opinions and evidence about why one choice or another is “right” for your family. As a new mom quickly learns, all of this information starts to conflict itself. It is very confusing, to say the least.

I am often asked why, as a social worker, I have chosen to work with parents around the issue of sleep. Social work is an incredible helping profession that equips us to serve others in need in so many different settings. For me, I have always been drawn to the role of supporting the functioning of the family. I began to do this, first and foremost, when I developed and started running The Chicago New Moms Group is 2011. Since the start of the program, over 1000 moms have participated in the group as first time moms and I have just recently begun a group for moms of subsequent children (whether it is your 2nd or 5th child, you still need support and maybe even more then when you just had your 1st!). Shortly after I began The Chicago New Moms Group, I started working with families individually as a sleep consultant. Not only did moms in group really want to talk about how to help their children sleep better, but I also very quickly saw (and vividly recalled from my own experience) how incredibly dark the world of parenting can feel when you are so completely exhausted. I say dark both literally, because we are often awake with our children during the hours of darkness, and also emotionally, because the sleep deprivation of parenthood accompanies every single postpartum mood disorder.

As I began diving into the world of sleepless families, I very quickly realized that, while my social work training gave me a good foundation for how to talk to parents in a way that spares them from so much of the shame and judgment they feel both internally and externally, I was lacking the tools to guide them through all of the different scenarios that can occur within the context of sleep challenges for children ages 0 through 6 years old. Through a miracle of coincidence, I learned of the Gentle Sleep Coach training offered by Kim West, LCSW-C, also known as The Sleep Lady®. In what was been the best decision of my professional career, I trained with her in 2012. Thus, Sleep Tight Consultants was born. Not only has my training as a Gentle Sleep Coach provided me with a tremendous community of support but it also involved over 80 hours of basic training, pro bono training cases, an exam, ongoing continuing education both offered throughout the year in the form of webinars and also, to this date, two phenomenal conferences. It is has been a learning opportunity that continues to serve both me and the families I work with every day. I share with you here the important details of my training as there are many sleep consultants out in the world now with no experience beyond sleep training their own children and giving advice to friends. They call themselves sleep consultants and have “hung out their shingle.” If you are considering hiring a sleep consultant, please do your research to learn about their background, training and experience.

Many moms come to me feeling deep shame regarding the feelings around needing to sleep training their child or children. They tell me that they want their child to sleep because without enough sleep, they are worried that their child won’t develop appropriately or will be set up for a lifetime of health consequences and/or behavior problems related to sleep deprivation. Or that their child is happier when they are well rested. Of course it is true that sleep helps with all of these things that make our children healthy and happy, what this misses is the guilt that moms feel for “selfishly” wanting more sleep for themselves. This is the point in our conversation where I remind parents that the best way to be the best parents we can be is to “put our oxygen masks on first” (Why do they have to tell us this on the plane?!? Because parents would otherwise sacrifice themselves for their children, thereby also failing to help their child breathe in a low pressure situation).

By teaching our children the life long skill of sleep, we are taking care of ourselves so we can better care for our children. Here is what we know about sleep deprivation: In adults, over time, getting less then 5 hours of consecutive sleep decreases our motor skills, increases cognitive problems, leads to an increase in postpartum mood disorders and actually increases the risk of death by all causes (often related to accidents) by 15%. Sleep deprivation/disruption is a known symptom of all postpartum mood disorders (most commonly thought of as depression and anxiety but also extends to postpartum OCD, bipolar disorder, PTSD and psychosis). It shouldn’t come as a surprise to sleep deprived moms that poor maternal sleep impacts mothers’ perceptions, feelings and behaviors towards their infant. It affections our alertness, attention, memory, inhibitory control, error monitoring, increases irritability and negative mood states, leads to poor frustration tolerance, decreased motivation and increased fatigue (Tikotsky, 2016). When parenting an infant, all of these listed functional impairments significantly play a role the reciprocal attachment process between a parent and their infant. It is time to stop feeling guilty about wanting more sleep for ourselves because in sleeping better as parents, we are coming out of the darkness, into the light and are now able to see a clearer path to being the best parents we can be.

Every family has a different bar for what is working for them and what is failing them. At Sleep Tight Consultants, I only work with families who come to me stating that what is happening in their family is no longer working for them and they are ready to make a change. When you have reached that point, please know that there is help and things can be significantly improved in order to help your whole family function better.

Please note: In addition to an inability to sleep (both because your child is keeping you awake and because you feel unable to sleep when your child is sleeping), if for 2 weeks or more you have been experiencing feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, sadness, lack of joy from the things that usually bring you happiness, appetite changes, intrusive worrisome thoughts, mood swings, irritability/anger/rage, apathy and/or feelings of being overwhelmed*, please contact me for a list of postpartum mental health providers in your area so you can get the help you deserve and need. With help, you will be well.

*Not a complete list of postpartum mood symptoms.