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Exhausted? Expert advice from a child sleep consultant

As mothers of multiples, we know the exhaustion of sleep deprivation well. We are experts in running full throttle on as little sleep as possible. What many of us are not aware of, though, is that there are actually experts who can help us fix that.

Pediatric sleep consultants are certified professionals who specialize in that elusive thing we all desire: a full night’s sleep. In order to learn more, we caught up with Alicia Birdsong, MA, LPC, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, to get the scoop on satisfying slumber.

What is a family sleep consultant? What do you do?

As a sleep consultant, I work with families who are experiencing sleep disruption with their children. The root of the work I do is to guide families through implementing a plan to help their child fall asleep independently, while working on their sleep schedule to ensure that we are meeting age-appropriate sleep needs.

What are the most common misconceptions about infant sleep needs?

Looking back to when I was a first time mom, I didn't realize that babies aren't born knowing how to sleep, it's not an innate skill they have. In addition to that, I didn't realize how little time babies can be awake before they get tired, especially in those newborn months, they sleep A LOT.

What is the most common mistake parents make in regard to their children's sleep?

The biggest "mistake" I see parents make is keeping their child up too long in-between sleep periods. While the idea is "if I keep my child up later, they will sleep better," it's false. When the body gets tired (this is true for children and adults), if we don't go to sleep, our body produces excess Cortisol (our adrenal gland, energy boosting hormone), to keep us awake and functioning. This excess Cortisol makes falling asleep harder, and staying asleep harder. Think of an adult who is sensitive to caffeine, and they have 2-3 cups of coffee before bed...that's what the overtired state can do.

What is your opinion on the terms "sleep training" and "cry it out?"

I think that sleep training and CIO get a bad wrap. I prefer to use terms like independent sleep, and no intervention.

How would you advise a parent who does not want to let their child cry?

This is tough, because until children reach a certain age where they have the ability to communicate effectively with words, crying is always going to be a way that they express their frustration. Having said that, it's of course important to acknowledge the fact that as parents we don't like the idea of our child crying, it makes us uncomfortable. What I encourage parents to do is two things: 1) Focus on why the crying is happening. It's not because their child is hurt or something is wrong, it's because their child is frustrated. Knowing that allowing our children to express their emotions is a vital part of their learning to regulate emotion, we can challenge ourselves to give permission for the crying. 2) You can choose a method in which you are able to be involved to offer comfort/reassurance, so while there will be crying, you can be part of the process.

Any advice for parents of multiples?

Keep them on the same schedule as best you can. For example, if one wakes from a nap, and the other is still sleeping, wake the other after 15 minutes has passed if they haven't woken on their own. If room sharing, work on getting their sleep in a solid place while they are still in cribs. Once you transition to a toddler bed, if they aren't sleeping well, things will likely get worse as they will have the freedom to get out of their bed.

What's the most important thing you think parents should know about sleep?

Sleep is SO important for physical and mental health for both children and adults. Sure, we can function without as much sleep, but in the long term, effects of sleep deprivation are detrimental to our overall health.

Is there anything else you want to share?

Don't be afraid of putting your child to bed early. In my almost 5 years of working as a sleep consultant, about 90% of the time I have consultations with parents, I always suggest we move bedtime earlier. An early bedtime helps prevent the overtired state, which leads to better quality sleep.

Many thanks to Alicia for answering our questions. If you are interested in learning more about her practice, visit her website. You can find a list of certified sleep consultants near you by clicking here.

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