Meet the Expert: the Sleep Consultant Edition
Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Sara Velarde of No Peep Sleep Solutions about her work as a sleep coach. Her firstborn was not a sleepy baby and through her exhaustion and frustration, she found she really enjoyed researching baby sleep and working out solutions for her family and others who sought her out for advice afterward. She eventually pursued a career as an Infant and Toddler Sleep Consultant, and now runs her own successful sleep coaching business.
We talked about what to expect from newborn and toddler sleep, the reason parents should definitely learn about and prioritize their children's sleep needs, and the kinds of support a sleep coach can offer your family if you're ready to get more rest! Check out our conversation below, edited for length and clarity for your reading enjoyment!
Hi Sara! Thanks so much for talking with me today! To start, can you tell me about yourself and why you got into sleep coaching?
Sure! I have two girls and when I was pregnant with the older one, I actually took a little class on baby sleep and it made sense to me. I thought, “Oh this is just logical, it will be fine.” And I had my baby and it was not fine. Nothing was fine. I had terrible baby blues, if not postpartum depression, and I also struggled with breastfeeding, and so that left a lot of guilt, and then I had delayed bonding with my daughter because of the guilt, and the lack of sleep. On top of that, my husband and I were fighting, and when the four-month sleep regression hit, it hit her terribly!
So around four-and-a-half or five months, we were putting her to bed around 9 or 10 pm. We both had to lay with her, with a projector on the wall and when she fell asleep, I would lift her up carefully and carry her to her crib, and then we would get maybe three hours of sleep. Then she’d wake up, and my husband would leave to sleep on the couch and I would bring the little baby in, and then we’d be awake every hour so I would basically not sleep next to her for the rest of the night.
That went on for about a month until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was feeling so out of control with all parts of life! I had a terrible newborn experience! It was not the experience that I wanted it to be as a mother. And I thought, there has to be something I can change here so how about sleep? So I started looking into it. I ordered three different books off of Amazon and I just studied for like two solid weeks and at the end of the two weeks, I said, “O.K, she is five-and-a-half months old, and I have a plan and we are sleep training this child. And within five days, she slept all the way through all feeds and was taking naps in her crib. It was honestly life changing for me. I am not a nice person when I don't sleep well. It’s terrible! And I had months of that! I was so depressed, I was anxious, I was miserable, and like I said, my husband and I were fighting all the time.
Afterward, when she first started sleeping through, and then I started catching up, it totally turned everything around. My baby was happy! She was crying all the time before this and I didn’t know why, but it was because she was exhausted! It turns out I had a happy kid, which was really nice! It was just life changing for me. And so from then on, I found that I actually had an interest reading about baby sleep.
As I kept studying, I helped out friends and family, and I’d say, “Hey, I can actually help you!” and so just doing that, I still didn’t consider it a career but then a after helping a bunch of people, I thought, "What if I do do this as a career?? I really like this! There are sleep coaches out there!" So I looked into and I saw there is a program! I can get certified! So I decided to do that, I took the leap and here I am.
That’s sort of my story too for how I ended up as a postpartum doula, because I just had a miserable experience and I really didn’t like it, and felt that there ought to be more support for women out there. I just feel like so many parents are winging it, and you don't have to.
Yeah, and it’s crazy because even with the amount of resources and information out there, parents still feel like they’re winging it! And I was the same way! I took a sleep class, I took a breastfeeding class, and I did all these things, but when you actually have the baby, it’s different! And so I feel like when I had her, I didn’t really know what to do. Nobody was telling me or helping me through this.
Lots of information, not quite enough support, right? Okay, let’s talk about baby sleep. What do you think parents should expect in terms of newborn sleep, and how does that change throughout the first year?
Newborns are hard and I think people know that they’re going to be hard, and they know not to expect a lot of sleep, but I think that easily and quickly becomes almost like a dejected attitude, a defeat. Like, “There’s nothing I can do,” and that is not true.
So while it is very important to have realistic expectations, because newborns do need to eat around the clock and they are born with day and night confusion, you can be proactive about correcting that – you don’t have to wait for them to figure it out. You can be strategic about feeding by encouraging full feedings a little more spread out, rather than short little snack-feedings every hour or two. Keeping in mind that babies cry for many different reasons, you can avoid falling into the trap of just feeding any time they make a peep, and then end up feeding every hour, and especially if you’re nursing, you just feel like you have no life outside of nursing. Try to pay attention and learn different cries and work towards deciphering the true need, which often is sleep! Still know that it is going to take probably at least a solid month of literally eating around the clock and waking at night every few hours, but it shouldn’t go on and on like that for months.
Of course, you are not going to ignore your baby’s biological needs – your baby is going to need to eat. But it’s easy to fall into a habit of snacking all day and night long, at the expense of restorative stretches of sleep. What I find, at least in our culture, we are so quick to jump in and over-help that a lot of times parents say, “Oh he’s just naturally not a good sleeper” but that may not be true. You just don’t know because you’ve jumped in to feed or change a diaper or stimulate from day one, possibly at the expense of good sleep. A lot of the time we actually impede what would naturally have progressed or we end up not really allowing our babies the opportunity and then we get stuck in this same habit with our kids at an older age.
So yes, with newborn sleep, it definitely will be erratic, it’s not going to be predictable from one day to the next, and you will be waking up at night, absolutely. It’s not realistic to expect a baby to sleep through the night in the first few weeks. However, again, there are ways to be proactive and strategic to get the most sleep possible at that stage, and then to grow into healthy habits so that when your baby can start sleeping longer, can start going a little longer without a feed, you see and you give that a chance to naturally develop into that new pattern as they grow.
So then what are some of the healthy habits parents should be putting into practice as their baby transitions from the newborn stage into the infant stage through the first year?
What it really comes down to is having an understanding of what your baby’s actual sleep needs are at every age, and then doing what you can to prioritize those sleep needs, just like you prioritize their nutritional needs. Sleep is just as important as food, which is something I think our culture also misses a lot, and so parents have to prioritize and give their baby the opportunity to sleep. Of course, babies aren’t always going to take it, sometimes they fight naps, but if you as the parent are providing the opportunity, then that’s all you can do. Lots of new parents think, “Babies will just sleep when they’re tired” but not always. Maybe when they’re really young, but after the first few weeks, providing a routine and a good sleep environment at the right times is incredibly important.
The other healthy habit is teaching the skill of independent sleep. When your baby grows with a reliance on you to do something or to provide something so they can fall asleep, that is going to be a problem. As a newborn, you are probably going to be helping and that’s okay! Newborns are not capable of self-soothing and it’s totally normal to help your newborn sleep. However, as babies get older, they do become able to put themselves to sleep, and to not need your help and your intervention as much. But we are so quick to over-help that we never allow that natural process to develop in our children, and then we end up with a sixteen-month-old who still relies on us to put them to sleep. So you have to allow that to develop and sometimes that means you also have to proactively teach them.
What about things like the baby’s personality? How much do you think a baby’s personality or natural inclination matter in their sleep through the first year?
Naturally better sleepers is more of a biological thing, it’s not really a personality thing, I think. And then what you do as a parent is huge! If we as a society, really did step back and allowed our babies to naturally develop, I think you’d probably see about fifty-percent being great sleepers and fifty-percent not-so-great sleepers. As it is now, it seems like most babies that I hear about are “not good sleepers,” but I think it is because we want to help so we insert ourselves into the process of falling asleep for our babies, so again, they grow without learning the skill to self-soothe. But it’s almost like a thing in our culture. We so often tease new parents, “You’ll never sleep again!” and new moms constantly talk about being so tired and we joke about needing all the coffee, and so clearly, a lot of us are not getting good sleep when we have young children, so does that mean all these babies are not good sleepers? I’m not so sure! There’s plenty of education out there and yet, not enough parents are educated about what their baby’s sleep needs are, how to prioritize them, and how to go after the good habits rather than the bad habits.
Again, in the newborn stage especially, it’s okay to help babies nap, as long as you know those things aren’t good habits going forward, but you are doing what you need to get through, that’s okay! But at four months old, babies start forming habits and expectations, so it is much more important to be aware of what you are doing and what you are demonstrating to your baby about what bedtime and sleep should look like.
Right, so if about half of all babies have trouble settling down and figuring out how to sleep on their own, what are some of the big mistakes that you see parents making before their kids are 6 months old? What are these bad habits that you’re talking about?
Well, the number one mistake is not being aware of sleep needs and letting your baby get overtired. If he is not getting adequate rest during the day and he is overtired, he will actually fight sleep more. I know this is a common misconception, “If I keep my baby up later, he’ll sleep later!” but it doesn’t work like that. He will fight sleep more, wake more often at night, and wake up earlier in the morning.
Are you talking about newborns here or all kids?
All of them! When babies are overtired and they’re not getting that rest they need, their bodies go into overdrive, so the biggest bad habit is just not understanding what they need and allowing that overtiredness to come.
The other bad habit that people get into is helping their child fall asleep. With a newborn, that’s something you need to do but with the knowledge that you can’t continue to do that forever. If you keep doing that, your baby is now going to form a habit, an association, with your actions putting them to sleep. They won’t have the confidence that they can actually fall asleep by themselves without mom or dad there, rocking, driving in the car, or feeding, and so that is a bad habit. It’s the way that we help our children fall asleep because we don’t believe they can or should have to do it themselves. And again, when they’re little, sometimes they need help, but when they’re older, they can actually fall asleep themselves, but if we never allow them to, they will never develop that skill.
And that’s what you’re doing when you try sleep training. When you’re down the road, and you’re so tired, and you’re say, “I’m done with this, I need to get this kid sleeping, what do I do?” what you are talking about is “I’m going to now teach my child this skill of falling asleep on his own.” So again, those bad habits are not being aware of the sleep needs and not meeting them, and then also just over-helping and not allowing your baby to develop the skill of falling asleep on his own.
Ok, so tell us a little about what you see in your work. When families call you because they realize this is a lot of work, this isn’t working, none of us is getting as much sleep as we need, what is the main reason that they call you? Does it have to do with trouble with naps or bedtimes or overnights?
Overnights is usually it. They say, “My baby is waking every two hours, and I can’t do this anymore! What do I do?” And so when I talk to them, I usually find out this family is also struggling with naps and also struggling with bedtime because it’s all interconnected. But that is the main driver, these parents cannot handle being awake every few hours at night.
And when parents call you, do they ask you if there’s a way to get some help without letting their baby cry?
Sometimes! I have been surprised because I’m always a bit nervous, hoping parents don’t say, “I hope we can do this without crying!” because that’s just not realistic. So I have been pleasantly surprised by most everyone’s more-realistic expectations! But, yes, I have had to tell some people that you just have to have some expectation of tears, because what you’re doing is changing habits!
Again, babies form habits at four months so if you come to me past four months, you’re going to change a habit and that is going to result in some protest crying. With babies younger than four months, in my newborn plan, I don’t talk about a sleep training method because we’re not really doing that. I always say with newborns, give them a few minutes, because if they’re fussy, or grunting, or groaning, or talking, or babbling, leave them be. Even fussing, leave them be. When they’re crying, go respond! So yeah, there should be very little, limited crying in the newborn stage for sure!
But if you try to teach, say, a fifteen-month-old the skill of independent sleep when they’ve never done it before, they are likely going to cry. If you then choose a very gentle method with limited crying, a high-parent-assist method, meaning the parent is more involved in teaching the skill of independent sleep, often it’s too stimulating for an older baby. It’s actually confusing for them. You’re right there but you’re not helping like you used to, and so a lot of times that actually ends up prolonging the process. So there are methods that are more gentle with less tears, and more, let’s say, firm methods which usually result in more tears. But let me be clear and say even the more firm methods are not necessarily cry it out.
Right, some parents think cry it out is the one way, the key way to sleep train, but there are many different ways, aren’t there?
There are so many different ways. I actually never recommend cry it out, because when people hear that, they think it means that you literally leave your baby to cry, so by that definition, I would never ask any client to do that. A lot of people come to me with more of that concern rather than no tears at all. They will say, “I understand that there will be some crying but I’m not doing cry it out” And I can say, “Great, I don’t even work with that method, don’t worry about it!”
So when you find a method that works for a family, whether it’s more or less parental involvement while teaching independent sleep, how long does it normally take once you find the right method for that family?
Well, it definitely depends on age and the family particulars. I always tell clients you will see progress and improvements within days, for sure. Depending on the approach and how old your baby is, progress may be small steps every few days meaning you will be fully trained within two to three weeks, or else progress may be super quick like with my older daughter. She went from waking up probably five to six times a night to sleeping twelve hours straight in five nights. The first night she probably woke up four times, the second night, twice, the third night once and so you see progress every night.
I have a friend, for example, who wanted to use a very gentle method that I usually recommend for five-month-olds for her eleven-month-old. I told her it might not really work, or else just be so slow because she’s kind of too old! It’s very high-parent-assist and I said that her daughter might get frustrated because it’s too stimulating, but my friend came back later and said it’s been very slow but she sees progress and feels it’s working but she’s also been doing it for several weeks now, whereas with my older daughter, it was five nights and it was done! So it depends on the age, and the method you choose but you should absolutely be seeing progress pretty immediately and steadily.
Alright, my last question about the sleep training portion here is what do you think are the most important reasons for clients to hire someone like you in the first year of their child’s life?
Well, I think it is important for you as the parent to be well-rested and it’s important for your baby too. I think a lot of parents say, “I can deal with being awake every two hours,” but that’s not good for your baby either, so I think everyone should focus on sleep in the first year. You’re not going to be your best self, you’re not going to be the best spouse to your partner, you’re not going to be the best parent to your child, you’re not going to be the best employee or employer, friend. I mean, it impacts literally every aspect of our lives.
Why should you work with a coach? For the wealth of knowledge we bring, first of all. I always tell people they can do this on your own. This is not some rocket science and there is lots of information out there. However, I have also read several books and still haven’t found the one that had every little helpful thing that I’ve now pulled together and offer to parents as a coach. You can absolutely do it, but you have to be able to pull it together logically and understand if one thing’s not working, what is it? Where do you pull something out and make a tiny tweak to make everything work again? Not everyone can invest the time to figure it all out.
The other obvious reason to work with a coach is for the guidance and support. For example, I talked to a potential client this morning, and she said she had the books and could probably do it, but she just didn’t want to. She worked all day, telling other people what to do and making schedules, and in her personal life, she wanted me to just tell her what to do. I think that’s the benefit of a coach too. It’s simple and to the point. And you have someone to actually call up and ask, “this is not working, what can I do?” You can’t get that from a book! With a coach, it’s a specific answer about your baby. I think that is a big relief for parents, to have someone to talk to rather than having to weed through information on their own.
Right! That was one of the biggest benefits that we got from our sleep coach also – it was the ability to talk to her and say, "We tried it and I’m not sure it’s working, do you think we should just drop the last nap? I don’t know what to do." I was so sleep deprived, and so desperate, I really needed someone to walk me through it.
Yeah, and sometimes I’m just a source of confidence. Sometimes a client texts me and I say, “No, you know this information. You’re telling me you know what you’re supposed to do, you’re just not confident in that, and I want to remind you that you know what you’re doing!” And so sometimes I just come in the clutch as like the confidence booster!
That’s so invaluable to parents who are feeling worn out. They need to feel supported and cheered on!
Okay you were talking about sleep coaching and why the field is so important for new parents. Can you tell us a little bit about the different kinds of sleep coaches there are and perhaps the different ways you can get certified as a sleep coach?
Yes, when I decided to start this as a business I thought, I’ll get certified, and there were three or four different programs, and there were a handful of sleep coaches, and I thought we’d all do the same thing, and now, on the other side of it, I see how much variety there really is! We have an online group for all of the graduates of the program I took, and we’re all so different even though we all teach the same things! Facts are facts, we all studied the same things, but we all have a different approach and prefer different methods. Its’ great that we can support each other without competition because we just click with certain clients, and not with others, and luckily for them, there’s another coach out there.
Then we also have different packaging and different ways that we like to work. For example, a lot of sleep coaches actually write out and share sleep plans for their clients. I used to do it that way, and now I only do phone call coaching, so it’s a video call where we talk about everything, I tell you about the plan, I follow up with an email with a written set of basic instructions, because my clients have said that they don’t want to read. They just want to be told what to do. Other coaches insist that their clients love their written plans! So look around until you find someone you like, and if you like their packaging, you understand what will work for your brain, how you take in information, take that into consideration.
And then there are different areas of expertise as well. Different coaches prefer to or choose to work, for example, with twins. I have never worked with twins, but one of my fellow coaches, has twins of her own, and so she gets a lot of clients with twins. And so you can kind of find different coaches that fit with the way that you want to work. For another example, I don’t work with co-sleeping. I will work with you if you want to stop co-sleeping, but I don’t work with families who want to continue co-sleeping and try to work on good habits because I feel like those are contradictory. But there are coaches who will say, “I love co-sleepers! I can totally help!”
So what happens when someone looks at your website, likes what they see, think you might be a good fit, you talk on the phone, and then what happens? What are the next steps for working with you?
I have an e-commerce site, so you can purchase the package online and pay right there. So, you check out and then once you’re signed up, I send an introductory email and then I start the package. I always include education material, because I like understanding what I’m doing and I want to empower you to know what you’re doing and why, and that way down the road, you are more confident in knowing how to make adjustments. I also have families submit a very detailed assessment form of current sleep habits, the baby’s personality, the family dynamics.
So you collect a lot of information about your clients?
A lot of information, yes, and then we do our video call. Afterward, there’s a follow up email with the plan and the relevant resources, a check-in call to make adjustments and answer questions about a week later, and that's it.
I kind of do things differently than other coaches because I have a popular basic package that doesn’t offer a lot of support. I’m not sure why, but it seems like I tend to work with clients looking for a lower price point, which then means less support and people are okay with that.
It’s a little more hands-off?
Yeah, a little more hands off. Here’s what to do, and then you run with it, exactly. Whereas another coach I know of includes six months of support with her packages! Of course, it’s a much higher price point, but you don't get anything less than that because that’s how she’s comfortable, too! She wants to offer support whereas I feel like if you asking for a lower cost and no support and you want to do it yourself, that’s fine!
I also have packages with unlimited support so I do have both, but I am one of the rare ones that has one package at a lower price point and no support. I’m finding not a lot of consultants work that way.
Interesting! Alright Sara, to wrap this up, are there any must-have baby sleep aids that you recommend to all your clients? I know you said you don’t want to have bad habits, you don't want to promote things that get in the way of independent sleep, but is there anything you do recommend that parents have on hand?
Yes! For sleep environment, first of all, get blackout curtains for baby’s room because as dark as possible is good! Also, a white noise machine, but not a projector! Baby does not need this constant stimulation. They do not need a mobile above their bed! The sleep environment needs to be calm, dark, quiet, that’s it.
Let’s see, I love pacifiers because I think they’re a great way to help your baby learn how to start relying on themselves to settle down. I know a pacifier is not a part of themselves, which means it’s technically a sleep association, however, it’s different than you the parent coming in. This is something they can put in their mouths themselves and it's a habit you can break later. So I do love a pacifier.
Especially for newborn clients, I always recommend to get a baby carrier of some sort. Baby wearing is amazing, but again, it’s a sleep crutch so you don’t want to do it forever. However it is great in the first four months. Because of that close contact, babies sleep nice and snuggled next to you, and they get longer stretches of sleep. Plus it helps you get things done around the house so I think carriers are great.
I loved the Rock’n Play for my girls when they were young. It’s not meant for overnight use. In fact, it’s technically meant for awake time. Still, my kids napped in it, but then, I was awake and checking on them. It’s not meant for them to be fully by themselves for hours without a parent being in sight of it. For the first few months though, I thought the Rock’n Play was great!
Another thing I always encourage people to get is swaddles. A lot of people will say, "My baby hates the swaddle!" but I suggest you keep trying it! Make them like it! And then for older babies, you transition them to a transitionary swaddle product. I like the Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit. I used that for my girls and I always recommend to try that for my clients, and then after that, you get a sleep sack. Sleep sacks are great not only for warmth, because obviously you can’t use blankets, but this is my little toddler secret: if your baby is trying to climb out of the crib, the sleep sack keeps them in. Not only does it keep them warm, but it also keeps them safe!
Yes! Good thinking! Okay, last question, Sara! Where can we find out more about you and your work online?
Yeah! My company is called No Peep Sleep Solutions, www.nopeepsleepsolutions.com, I’ve got all the information on there, and I’m on Instagram mostly to share a lot of good sleep tips on there @nopeepsleepsolutions!
There you have it! Sara and I had such a great time nerding out about baby sleep and sleep coaching! We hope you've learned something from our discussion and if you have any questions for Sara or I about baby sleep and sleep training, drop them in the comments section below, or find us on Instagram where both love to hang out!
Sleep tight tonight!