Jessica Begley geeks out about sleep. At least she does when it comes to helping parents and children have more rest-filled nights.
Begley, a mother of two, recently became Maine’s first certified infant and child sleep consultant after graduating from the Family Sleep Institute’s Certified Child Sleep Consultant certification program. Soon after, she started The Baby Sleep Geek, a sleep consultation service.
She recently answered a few questions about infant and child sleep patterns and what parents should know about teaching their children healthy sleep habits.
Q: What is an infant and child sleep consultant?
As a certified consultant, I have gone through extensive training on the science, benefits and behavioral aspects of sleep in young children.
Q: Why did you decide to start The Baby Sleep Geek?
I have been that tired mom before, so I am passionate about helping other families get the sleep they need and deserve. My son has always had trouble sleeping. I call him my spirited sleeper. I spent many hours researching online, reading numerous sleep books by all the experts, talking to family and friends, and even brought my son to a sleep specialist and did an inpatient sleep study. I came to the conclusion that there is a vast amount of information out there, and it’s not easy to interpret and hard to implement when you are insanely sleep-deprived. I knew there had to be a better way. After doing some research, I was excited to learn about the growing field of sleep consulting. With my former background in parent education, I thought, “Hey, I can help other families and help my own son at the same time.”
Q: What are some basic things parents should know about sleep?
Sleep is like food for the brain. Your child’s body needs healthy sleep to grow and thrive just like he or she needs healthy food. Children who do not get adequate sleep are at greater risk of obesity later in life and mental health problems, have difficulty performing well at school and may exhibit behavioral problems. But, sleep deprivation impacts parents too. Driving while drowsy leads to thousands of car crashes per year and restricting sleep by even one to two hours a night over time can cause chronic fatigue. There is also a link between sleep deprivation and postpartum mood disorders, which can make it difficult to bond with your baby, maintain a healthy relationship with your partner and perform well at work. While a small part of your child’s sleep habits are determined by genetics, much of it is determined by things you as a parent have control over, and the earlier you start, the easier it is to prevent problems from ever occurring.
Q: At what point should a parent seek professional sleep help for their baby or child?
Sleeping independently is a learned skill. Some children learn easily, just like some learn to ride a bike in one day. Others need a little more help from their parents. If what you are doing to help your baby get restorative sleep is working for your family, you shouldn’t feel pressured to make any changes. But if your family is not getting the sleep needed to function and thrive, then this is probably a sign that things may need to change. If you are finding it difficult to create and stick with a plan, or find yourself experiencing sleep problems over and over again, a sleep consultant can help your family find more success. The benefit of working with a sleep consultant is that we can work with you to create a unique approach that is in line with your parenting philosophy. No two plans are identical, because no two families are identical. It’s not about sleep training, but about building a healthy relationship with sleep so that your child can sleep well for many years to come.
Q: What are a few things parents can do to help encourage healthy sleep habits for babies and children?
If you have a baby under a year, make sure his or her sleeping space is safe to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Provide an environment that is conducive to sleep. Think cave-like — cool, dark and quiet. This will help protect and promote sleep. Make sure that you have your child on an age-appropriate schedule. Implement a bedtime routine. A good model is the 5 B’s: Bath, breastfeed, brush teeth, book, and bed. This routine is calming and also helps establish some important healthy behaviors early on — brushing teeth and reading. Talk to your child about the importance of sleep. Younger children can understand that if mommy doesn’t have enough sleep, she’ll be too tired to visit fun places. Older children should understand that sleep is important for doing well in school, in sports and on the playground. Most importantly, make sleep a priority for your family.
Q: What are common problems parents experience when trying to teach their children/babies to sleep?
The most common problem I see is sleep associations like nursing or rocking to sleep. Some call these negative sleep associations, but they are actually quite positive. There is nothing more heartwarming than watching your baby fall asleep in your arms. For some families this is enjoyable and doesn’t lead to any sleep issues. But for others, problems arise when their baby experiences normal arousals in the night and expects these associations to be recreated in order to fall asleep again. But the truth is, sleep problems can pop up at any age, even in once-great sleepers. I work with a lot of toddlers and young children who now are resisting bedtime or waking at night. This is very common as they gain independence and begin to test boundaries.
Q: What are realistic sleep expectations parents should have of their babies and children?
Most importantly, have realistic expectations of what sleep looks like at each developmental age. For example, I would never expect a baby under 4 months old to routinely sleep through the night. In fact, many don’t until closer to 1 year old. But once the newborn stage has passed, most babies need more consolidated sleep at night and some good solid naps. If you are nursing, rocking or bouncing your baby back to sleep every two hours, and naps are less than an hour long, chances are you and your baby are not getting the quality sleep you need. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t nurse your baby in the night or that you need to do sleep training. But there are many options besides “cry it out” and “wait it out.” With the right plan we can drastically improve sleep with minimal sleep training.