Sleep Training Misconceptions: Podcast Episode #191
June 23, 2023

Sleep Training Misconceptions: Podcast Episode #191

Kristin chats with Jackie Viscusi of Gold Coast Doulas about sleep training misconceptions.  You can listen to this complete podcast episode on iTunes, SoundCloud, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Welcome.  You’re listening to Ask the Doulas, a podcast where we talk to experts from all over the country about topics related to pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and early parenting.  Let’s chat!

Kristin:  Hello, hello!  This is Kristin with Ask the Doulas, and I am so excited to chat with Jackie Viscusi today.  She is one of our new sleep consultants at Gold Coast Doulas.  Welcome, Jackie!

Jackie:  Hi, Kristin!  Thank you so much.  I’m excited to be here.

Kristin:  Yes!  So this whole concept for the podcast came about when we were chatting about misconceptions surrounding sleep consulting and not wanting the cry it out method.  There are so many different methods, as you know as a certified sleep consultant.  So let’s chat a bit about what you hear from clients as far as resistance to implementing a customized sleep plan.

Jackie:  Yeah, well, I think first and foremost, I like to clarify that sleep training does not have to be aligned with cry it out.  I think people just associate them as being one and the same, and sleep training – I am not even a huge fan of the phrase because it kind of sounds like training a dog, you know?

Kristin:  Exactly.

Jackie:  It’s behavior modification, and we do that with dogs and animals, smart ones.  But, you know, I think with our babies, it’s like we definitely want to have more of a gentler approach with them.  We don’t want to frame it like they’re robots.  I do this, then you do this.  And cry it out, while it can be very effective, it’s definitely a more aggressive approach.  It’s definitely something that I would kind of lean towards being more of a last resort.  And I just think getting the family on board with practicing healthy sleep hygiene as early as you can after the kind of – you know, you’re in survival mode for the first few months.  We all just have to, like – we’re kind of all in it together at that point.  We’ve all been there.  But, you know, around four, five, six months, you start seeing patterns and you start kind of realizing, okay, this sleep deprivation is really getting to me.  I need to start taking care of myself again.  While bonding with your child is totally natural and all of that is what I promote in my practice, you know, you might want to start kind of weaning them into more an independent sleep pattern and possibly sleeping in their own room, their own crib, and just fostering those sleep habits early will take you a long way and possibly prevent you from having to do cry it out in the first place.

Kristin:  Yes.  So as a mom of two, I’m guessing your own journey to becoming a sleep consultant started with sleep habits and wanting to really make a change in your own household, correct?

Jackie:  Yes.  I kind of struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety, and I found with my first one that she was really, really strong willed and kind of – I don’t like to call it a bad sleeper because they’re babies and there’s no good and bad, but she definitely wanted my help and she wanted the attachment with me and was waking up multiple times a night.  We started around eight, nine months because we kind of got to a breaking point and we were like, I can’t function during the day.  I’m definitely getting more depressed.  My husband was a really supportive partner, but even he was cracking.  And I just felt like I wasn’t able to be a very present mom.  Like, I was just kind of a walking zombie, and I wasn’t even really able to enjoy her the way that I had hoped I would be able to at that point.  So for me, sleep was vital, and I didn’t realize how much the sleep deprivation was exacerbating my anxiety and depression until I got help for it.  And then when I got help for it, I really, really was kind of like night and day for us.  We did a modified Ferber approach, which I’m happy to go into the different methods, but that was the one that we went with.  And it’s kind of a gentler Ferber.  But we saw such great results from that.  I was forever grateful to our sleep consultant.  And then by the time my second one came around, I was fascinated by sleep, and I’ve always kind of been fascinated by sleep.  My mom has narcolepsy, so there has always kind of been a level of importance for sleep in our family that I feel like is sometimes underappreciated in our society, how much we need rest to restore and recharge and be able to do all the amazing things we’re able to do as parents.  So by the time my second one came along, I was able to become certified and did it in tandem with sleep training or modifying the sleep behavior that I needed to.  And I was able to do a much gentler approach on her based off my learnings, based off of age, based off of sleep associations and just being mindful of kind of what I was doing along the way.  So that’s kind of my story.

Kristin:  So I would love for you to get into some of the other methods for sleep consulting, other than cry it out or Ferber.

Jackie:  Right.  So I’m a big fan of fading.  There’s a fading method where you essentially – you know, you kind of start slow, so you don’t expect any huge changes to happen.  It is a little bit more of a gradual approach whereas the other cry it out or Ferber, you may see improvements in two to three days.  And this could be more of two weeks, three weeks.  But you’ll see improvements earlier than that.  But for it to really take effect, it does take a little bit longer, so I just like to tell parents, you know, some people are really kind of coming to me and it’s like SOS, I need help right away.  But the fading method is great because you’re just gradually transitioning them into their own space and you’re peeling back kind of like layer by layer their dependence on you as a caregiver.  So what does that mean?  That means maybe you’re spending 20 minutes rocking them to sleep.  Well, slowly, you just cut back that time.  And then slowly you try to separate time between feeding and sleeping because a lot of babies like to nuzzle up with a nice warm glass of milk, breast or bottle.  So you want to just start unlatching them a little bit and see if they can fall asleep just on your arms.  And maybe as you’re rocking, you go from 20 minutes to 10 minutes to maybe just 5 minutes a night.  And you don’t rock, like, as intensely.  So they kind of almost don’t even realize that they’re transitioning or you’re fading your associating with them, their dependence on you, over time.  And that worked really well with my second one, to the point where I was able to just put her down and really had very, very minimal fussing.  So that’s one method.  There’s a lot to that.  I like to give people a full plan, a full – just a sleep schedule to abide by, being mindful of wake windows and age, but that’s one main approach that I like to use as a technique, and I also like the chair method a lot.

Kristin:  What is that?

Jackie:  That is staying close to your baby.  It’s really good when you’re trying to get them to sleep in their own crib but maybe they just recently came out of your room and they’re not quite – you know, they just have not adapted yet to their own space.  Obviously, before all this, you want to start seeing if they can nap in that new space and just getting them familiar with the space and area so it’s not too new to them.  And then at night, you basically lay them in the crib awake.  People say drowsy, but awake.  That is a good rule of thumb, but sometimes you don’t even really need to wait until they’re all that drowsy because you also don’t want them to be too overtired.  So you kind of find a nice sweet spot, and I like to guide parents towards that by looking at a sleep log, identifying any issues, identifying, oh, okay, I think they’re overtired here or oh, actually, they’re kind of growing out of this wake window and we need to start looking more at the clock and timing and their natural rhythms.  And so you lay them in the crib, and you – there’s different kind of techniques or approaches.  I like to continue having the hand on the baby.  So through the crib, you take a chair.  You sit right down next to the crib, and you put your hand on them and you pat them.  You pat their bum if they can be on their tummies, or you pat their tummy nicely and shush.  Obviously, blackout curtains, sound machine, all the goods, will set them up for success.  And then slowly after a couple days, you move the chair further and further away from the crib until you’re back into the door, and then you open the door, sit in the hallway.  After a few days of that, then you kind of just gradually see yourself out, and they will just slowly start to adapt to that new environment.

Kristin:  So it’s very customized, from what you’re saying, based on families’ unique parenting styles and needs and even the household environment.

Jackie:  Yes.  Yes, exactly.  And, I mean, you know, for some families, they have another small kid or toddler or baby that’s sleeping in the hallway across, so they don’t want to hear a lot of fussing.  So I try to do minimal tears.  But if they fuss a little bit, there are things you can do, like have a sound machine out in the hallway so it doesn’t wake up the other little one that you have sleeping.  And sometimes with fussing, that can be a way that they are soothing themselves.  So you kind of do have to be careful not to go in right away or if like, let’s say you’re doing the chair.  You know, they might protest a little bit once you get out of sight.  You know, that’s kind of a bigger step for them.  So you do want to let them kind of try to work it out just a little bit for a few minutes.  And a lot of the times, they’ll surprise you, and that sound that kind of sounded like baby crying turns into more of a humming or sometimes they sing to themselves.  You’ll start to recognize, oh, okay, they’re starting to put themselves to sleep now.  You’ll see that change, and you’re like, yes, it’s happening!

Kristin:  And some clients we work with as postpartum doulas will respond to the tiniest of cues or want us to, and so that’s really good information to share that making different noises is not necessarily a bad thing, and self-soothing can be very beneficial.

Jackie:  Absolutely, and I kind of liken it to a bit of safety boundaries, if you will.  There are times I actually – just this morning with my one-year-old, she wanted to – she’s learning how to walk, and the past few weeks, she’s just been zipping all around.  And it’s new and fun and exciting for her.  And she gets kind of mad when she has to go back in the car seat.  She’s like, excuse me, I would like to keep practicing this new cool thing.  I don’t know about you, but I’m learning a lot by doing this, and I don’t want to be confined in the car seat.  So when I put her in there, sometimes she fusses and kind of fights me on it.  But it’s one of those things where if I gave in to every little time she fussed – hey, you know, you’re the parent.  You know what’s best for them, and I’m going to buckle you in because that’s the safest thing, right?  And so if your family is really, really struggling with sleep deprivation and you’re not able to drive safely; you’re not able to function very well; you’re forgetting everything; you’ve got that fog times ten because your body is not allowing itself to replenish and restore – I mean, you lose memory, focus, cognitive functioning.  There’s just so much that goes on with sleep deprivation.  So at a certain point, sometimes it does become a safety issue for families.  So I like to just kind of reinforce the notion of, this is a bit of a safety boundary.  You know that if they’re in their crib and you have safety proofed it, which I always do with all my clients and go through all the – you know, what not to have in the crib, which is basically nothing.  You know, and if they’re in there in a safe environment, they’re going to be okay.  And they’re safer in there oftentimes than in other places where, no shaming, but parents will fall asleep with them sometimes.

Kristin:  Or have them in the car seat still sleeping because they don’t want to wake them.

Jackie:  Exactly.  Exactly.  For some people, it’s really hard to hear – actually, for all people, it’s hard to hear babies fuss.  But I think starting to learn that some protesting – you know, that’s different than extreme crying where they’re in a lot of distress.  Some protesting is them not crying even.  It’s just the only way they know how to express themselves.  It’s like a dog barking.  There’s different types of barks, right?  And sometimes you’re like, oh, that’s an excited bark.  And for babies, I think – oh, gosh.  Now I’m comparing them to dogs again and training.

Kristin:  But it is similar, yes.  You get to know your pet as well as your infant.

Jackie:  And your baby’s cries and protests.  And a lot of the times, they’re just doing that because they’re mad.  You’re changing things up on them.  They want you to be there because the way that they’re put down is the way that they want to stay asleep.  So if you put them to sleep on you all the time and they fall right asleep nuzzled into your chest, that’s how they’re going to want to stay asleep.  And when they wake up and you’re not there, it can be really disorienting for them.  So that’s why they cry and they want you back in there or they protest.  But I really like to remind parents that sometimes it is not this heart wrenching cry that we think of.  Again, this is four months and up.  I would not ever leave a baby to even fuss, really, before then because they have all these needs that we need to meet, right?  But if you set them up and you’re meeting their needs in every other way except for maybe a few minutes of fussing, because you know that that’s what’s best for them to learn how to put themselves to sleep and sleep independently, then I kind of think that’s where your parenting style starts to be shaped, to be honest.  You start to say, like, okay, I think – I know now better.  I know more than my baby, and I know right now that for our family, we need our baby to sleep in their own crib in their own room, and that’s for the safety and wellbeing of the entire family.

Kristin:  Yes, good point.  So Jackie, what’s the difference between hiring a certified sleep consultant and taking a sleep course or following a method through a book or YouTube video, whatever it might be?  What is the benefit to investing in an expert like yourself?

Jackie:  That’s such a good question, and I can honestly answer this – like, not trying to really sell anything.  I would have first of all paid so much more money to have the one on one service than I even paid.  The gift of sleep is – like, you can’t even put a monetary value on it.  It is so different to be able to talk with somebody.  I think nowadays, everything is automatic and automated and online, and you just take yourself through these rabbit holes.  And then one book says this and another book says never do this, and it’s that same thing.  And you’re like, well, what am I supposed to do?  And it’s so stressful, and parents are going through so much as it is in that first year, especially.  For me, I saw all those courses and stuff that you could take, and it was so overwhelming to me.  I didn’t want to watch another video of someone that I couldn’t talk to.  I had questions, and I wanted answers, and I wanted them specifically tailored to my family.  I wanted to be able to say, but my husband works West Coast hours, and if I put them down this early, maybe he won’t even see them.  How can we make this work for our family?  Those things, you just – I mean, you can’t find online or in a book.  It’s not as customized.  And for me, it is worth every ounce of money and energy to just be able to troubleshoot with somebody, have them make up a plan for you.  I mean, all the what-ifs – well, what if they wake up at this time, or what if they fall asleep in the car?  Like, now what?  And you’re Googling again.  I mean, it’s just – it is so much more efficient in my opinion, both time and money wise, and I think that you get a much more specific, holistic, customized approach to your specific needs and your family’s needs.

Kristin:  Exactly.  Yeah, and every child is so different.  I know my kids had completely different needs as far as sleep and feeding and temperaments and so, yeah, it is great to have that customization and support.  Not only do you have individualized plans, but you also offer text support and other communication and check-ins to see how the plan implementation is actually going.

Jackie:  Yeah, exactly.  We do follow up calls.  I monitor the sleep log.  And I really try to encourage parents to be really active on the sleep log because I was not one of those parents that jotted down every little note and – you don’t want to drive yourself crazy with this, you know, the hours and the numbers and the wake window.  But I think in the beginning, just like anything – if your stomach has been upset, your doctor is going to tell you that you’ve got to start to just track what you eat because there’s something going on here.  And you’ll probably find that, oh, when I eat this, I feel this way.  So if you have something to go back to, you can troubleshoot so much easier.  So the sleep log will tell us, oh, you know what?  I didn’t even realize it, but they were awake way longer than I thought.  And so it’s something we can go back to and track.  And that’s not something you have to do forever.  That’s just for a week or two that we’re working together.  And so then we do follow up calls.  I love to check in on my families.  A lot of times, no news is good news.  I’ll be like, hey, you guys, everything okay over there?  And they’re like, oh, yeah, they’ve been sleeping really well, actually.  Do we need a follow up?  And I’m like, yeah, let’s do a follow up call.  We should – hey, it’s a service.  It’s part of the package, right?  But I find that having that, oftentimes parents will realize, oh, okay, I do have a lot of notes.  Oh, okay, I do have what-ifs.  And then we go over all of that on our follow up call.

Kristin:  Love it.  So what is your ideal age range?  I know the sleep consultants at Gold Coast, we all have different niches for the team.  And so what is your starting point and as far as getting into toddlers, what’s your cutoff point?

Jackie:  I feel – I would say I have the most experience in about five months, four or five month old, to, I would say, the first year.  But I have found a lot of success lately with toddlers, and I’ve just been learning a lot more, studying up on it, taking workshops with child behavioral specialists.  And it’s been very interesting and very kind of fun to nerd out on two year olds, three year olds, and four year olds.  And their little brains are working so much differently and faster and independently than the little littles.  So I would say I feel comfortable with all of it, but I’m expanding my practice more to toddlers.

Kristin:  Yes.  And we certainly get just as many requests for toddler sleep as we do for infants.  Part of it is either just parents beyond exhaustion and need to make a change in their household and – or they’re getting ready for another baby, and they want to get sleep set for the toddler in order to prepare for the newborn.

Jackie:  Exactly.  We see that a lot.  The mom or the dad knows that there’s another one coming down the pipeline.  They’re like, oh, my gosh, how are going to – we’ve got to get this – nip this in the bud or get this under control.  And I’ve been there, you know?  But I’m just so glad that my first one – we got her sleep controlled, you know, under control so that – and she’s such a good sleeper.  Both my girls are, but she has such a strong personality, my firstborn, and she – I love that about her.  She’s really spicy, really strong willed.  But man, she can sleep.  And I think she has the personality type to potentially – like if we hadn’t gotten a hold on that, I think we would have been in a much different headspace for our second one.  But knowing that you can count on, from when I put her in there in her room, now in her toddler bed, until when we are ready to go get her, knowing that I can count on that eight to ten hours – ten hours, really – it just changes the ballgame up.  Because that frees you up for this other sweet little being that you’re preparing for or that you want to prepare for in the future so you can really focus on that newborn because that will be so vital to your bonding there.  But you’ll kind of keep a good head on your shoulders, I think, in doing so because you’re getting sleep.

Kristin:  Yes.  So important.  So any final tips for our listeners, Jackie?

Jackie:  I would say to trust your gut and stay consistent.  So I think trusting your gut, meaning you do know your kids the best.  You will be very insightful to whether something is going on with them.  The other reason I really, really love sleep training is because if your baby is a good – well, if behaviorally your baby is doing what you think is healthiest for your family, then you know when something is wrong with them.  If they’re just crying and waking up all the time, you don’t really know.  You think maybe they’re teething or they’re going through a cold or a milestone.  And while those things do disrupt sleep a little bit, if they’re sleep trained, they’ll sleep through it.  It will be much less intrusive.  So trusting your gut meaning if something is off and doesn’t feel right or your baby feels sick or something is going on, at no point you intervening is that going to – one time or whatever is going to throw everything off.  So trust your gut on that.  If you feel something deeply, do it.  You and I will talk through it, and we’ll kind of deal with that hurdle when we get to it.  And then the other one is to stay consistent, which that kind of goes back and forth a little bit, but meaning when you’re actually implementing the sleep training process, when you’re starting to see the improvements, just be careful not to slip back again.  If they have a runny nose, if you see teeth coming through, that stuff aside, just stick with the plan.  And trust the plan, and I think consistency – little babies and toddlers and children love routines.  They love boundaries.  That’s where they feel the safest.  So if you’re consistent with them, they will come to expect it and trust you.  If you’re not and you’re all over the place, they’ll read that, as well.  So yeah, I would say those are the two main tips.

Kristin:  And that can be challenging if there are other caregivers, like grandparents involved who may not want to necessarily follow the plan.

Jackie:  Yep, yep.  Exactly.

Kristin:  Vacations can also be challenging.

Jackie:  For sure, and one thing I like to ask of everybody in the beginning is to print out the sleep plan and put it on the fridge.  Give it to your caretakers and really just try to hammer home that you’re really trying to do a thing here.  That’s for everyone’s health and wellbeing, so if they can follow it the best they can, that would be the most helpful.  But some things are out of your control.  Daycare, or you’re going to be traveling.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  Explaining the bigger reason why you’re doing it – it’s not just like, oh, you know, I don’t want to hear my baby cry – you know what I’m saying?  It’s a bigger thing.  It’s a bigger issue.  It’s actually part of health and wellness and so I think if you can get other caregivers or family members on board with that, I think that you’ll see them kind of following suit a lot better.

Kristin:  Wonderful advice.  So our listeners and clients can work with you wherever they live in the world.  You happen to be in South Florida.  Of course, Gold Coast is in Michigan, but we see sleep clients all over the world.  So, of course, your bio is on the Gold Coast website, and we’re so thankful to have you on the team and sharing your wisdom on the Gold Coast Instagram page and Facebook.  So thanks for sharing all of your amazing tips with our listeners today, Jackie.

Jackie:  Thank you so much, and I’m so, so excited to be a part of the team and helping families.  It’s my main passion.  Looking forward to it.

Kristin:  I can tell!  Well, thank you so much, and take care.

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