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The Real Risk of Sharing Professional Sleep Advice

Photograph by Twenty20

Most parents have been on the receiving end of sleep advice. Solicited or not, well meaning moms, grandmothers, nannies and even dads have likely offered you bits of generally harmless wisdom like “sleep when the Baby sleeps,” or “get them on a schedule as soon as possible.” It isn’t until real sleep challenges rear their heads that the advice starts to get specific, often behavioral and sometimes risky.

As a certified infant and child sleep consultant, one of the conversations that comes up frequently among my colleagues is the sharing of sleep plans. When a client hires a sleep consultant they often receive a sleep plan— action steps meant to resolve their sleep challenges. This plan can range from a single behavioral method practiced by a given consultant, to a bespoke holistic plan that is specific to each child. In either case, a thorough consultant will have met with the client and have a very clear view of the challenges, the dynamic in the house, the child’s temperament and many other elements before generating a sleep plan.

Bottom line: These are highly customized sleep plans.

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So when we hear from our colleagues or clients that a sleep plan has been shared, we can’t help but feel concerned. It's like giving someone your prescribed medication without knowing how she/he may react. Any professional sleep consultant would say this isn't a good idea and could cause a number of unfavorable results from increased maladaptive behaviors to full-blown trauma.

The same is true for the amateur advice that is often spread through mommy groups and boards, at the playground and preschools. Advice such as, “Just let them cry it out, I did it and it only took 3 days!” or “I co-slept with my child until she was 4 and we never had sleep problems,” and my personal favorite, “They'll sleep when they're tired.”

While all this advice is well intended, every baby is very different and will respond very differently.

While all this advice is well intended, every baby is very different and will respond very differently. Every set of circumstances is so profoundly individual that what was successful for one baby could fail another and actually cause emotional distress to a baby and/or their caretaker. Let’s look at how this might happen:

Baby A is 9 months old and has a sleep plan meant to encourage independent and consolidated nighttime sleep. It's a purely behavioral approach: Supported crying. Baby A will likely cry but Mom is there to support her in her crying, to soothe her with her voice and her presence. The plan is carried out with consultant support and Baby A is falling asleep on her own and waking up one time a night to nurse after two week’s time. Mom is so thrilled that she tells her friend.

Baby B is also waking frequently at night so her mom follows Baby A’s sleep plan. The first night is really tough, Baby B cries for two hours. Mom cries too and then takes Baby B into her bed to sleep.

Night 2 is even worse, two hours of crying, Mom takes Baby ” into bed and she wakes up twice as much as usual.

Night 3 comes and Baby B starts crying during pajama time and refuses to nurse before bed.

Baby B’s mom is confused and frustrated that sleep is actually getting worse. She calls the sleep consultant and tells her about the shared sleep plan, that it is a complete catastrophe and she needs help!

The sleep consultant does a full intake on Baby B and learns that unlike Baby A who had an easy temperament, solid routine, napped and slept well but had always been held and rocked to sleep, Baby B had no routine, never napped for longer than 30 minutes at a time and had a far more sensitive temperament.

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The sleep consultant also learns that Baby B’s mom has virtually no support at home and is suffering from postpartum depression. The three nights of crying have sent her into a tailspin, her anxiety is through the roof and so is her child’s as a result.

Two very different babies, two very different sleep challenges and two very different circumstances. Sure, the method could work for Baby B eventually but not until several other issues are addressed first!

The moral of the story? Take care with the information you share.

If you have a sleep plan from a sleep professional, please do not share it with others. You can be far more helpful by sharing your sleep professional’s contact information instead.

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