Today, I’m excited to share with you an interview I got to do of Kathleen Heath, one of my fabulous Buy Nothing neighbors – and a local sleep coach! We talked about sleep and how she supports families in achieving their sleep goals.
I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
How Kathleen became a sleep coach
Abby Jorgensen: Thank you so much for being willing to chat with me! So the question I want to start with is, how did you come to do sleep consulting work?
Kathleen Heath: I love that question! So, my oldest is 10, and when we started out parenting I knew a good deal from nannying and babysitting, from being involved with babies. And I actually had gone to a workshop with a sleep consultant when I was pregnant with him. But we got to the five month mark and things weren’t going so well. So we needed some personal help and advice, so we hired a sleep coach. We were living in Chicago at the time. The sleep coach sat down with us and wrote up a personalized approach based on what we had told her, she was. She had a specific program that she prescribed to and gave to her clients, and it worked like magic! She was present and supportive while we were helping Ryan to sleep. It was like the fourth night of working with him, he was sleeping all the way through, and we were thrilled! So, yes, we had a positive experience with that. When I was pregnant with Nora a year later, I decided to go ahead and get my certification to distract myself from my terrible pregnancy.
Abby: Got it, that makes sense! That’s a great thing to do with that time.
Kathleen: Yeah, so by the middle of 2013, I was certified as a maternity and child sleep coach. Birth to preschool is the age range I work with. The vast majority of my clients are in the six-twelve month range, which I love, but I’ve also worked with two- and three- and a few four- year-olds over the years.
Abby: Oh, that’s awesome.
What does a sleep coach do?
Abby: Can you tell me a little about what your approach to sleep is?
Kathleen: I don’t follow one program when I work with families. I actually approached sleep totally differently with each of my four children! My training was actually through a different certifying body which has evolved into something else, so I’m now my own entity, but I take a holistic approach to sleep. I don’t even say the word training. We are looking at babies as people, families as unique family units that have their own goals, their own comfort zones. So my approach is sort of looking at the whole picture, all the factors that touched on sleep and what a family’s particular goals are (the things that they want to change), and then figuring out how we can get this family to their goals in a way that is comfortable for them. So it’s a little bit different than some sleep coaches, who will use a certain program that they apply to babies, but I have been operating for about nine years on this holistic approach, where you tailor sleep plans to families.
Kathleen: I see myself as an educator and a pep-talker.
Abby: That makes a lot of sense! So when you came to this for your first child, did you have that sort of approach taught to you then? Or was that something that you developed?
Kathleen: It was the way that I was taught through my training program.
Abby: I see.
Kathleen: I would say that the program we did with Ryan was pretty holistic and definitely ensured that our timing was supporting our goals, that his nap length and timing of sleep was biologically appropriate, that what we were asking him to do was developmentally appropriate. I do think it was holistic, and I appreciate that approach, but I also like being able to give families options.
Abby: So, then you did the training, and now here you are! It sounds like your favorite is the six to twelve months range; is that right?
Kathleen: I love six to twelve months, yes! The babies are old enough that they can succeed with most sleep goals that reasonable parents are wanting, like a full night of sleep. That is an age where it’s going to be reasonable.
Abby: Compared to, like, a two week old?
Kathleen: Yeah, a newborn. A six-to-twelve-months old can respond very easily and beautifully, and any habits that exist are not deeply ingrained at that age. When they’re older, you’ll see those sleep associations start to have an emotional piece of attachment to whatever a baby uses to get to sleep. There’s more significance to those after the first birthday. So before then, you can usually make changes without being terribly upsetting, that most babies are happy and respond really well to. And if you have a good plan, that is also true for older babies if it’s done well. I’ve worked with a lot of toddlers very successfully and you can help them adjust habits without any kind of trauma to baby or parent.
Abby: It sounds like there are more considerations then, though.
Kathleen: Yeah, exactly. There’s more of a psychological piece of toddlers and preschoolers, given what’s going on in their mind. How can I help them feel okay about this? Whereas with babies, things are still pretty simple. You have to get the timing right, but they need to sleep a lot. And they’ve got a pretty good drive to sleep pretty often.
Abby: So do I! It can be hard, I think, going from newborn to six months old. There are so many changes that happen in a really short amount of time. I know a lot more about the parent development side of things than the child development side of things, but I know that for both parents and children, there’s a lot that happens in that first year. So I’m curious, what do you think is one of the big misunderstandings that people have about sleep in that first year?
Kathleen: Yeah, a lot of what I do when a newborn family reaches out is help parents set expectations. I think the most common thing I hear is, “Well, my friend’s baby started sleeping twelve hours a night when she was four weeks old, but our baby isn’t doing that, what’s wrong?!” Yep, nothing is wrong. I think a lot of what parents appreciate about hiring a sleep coach is setting reasonable expectations for this age. Kids from different families are different, and your baby’s not going to do what your best friend’s baby might do. And kids may not do it like their older siblings. So I think a lot of it is answering what can you expect at this age. For newborns, that usually does not involve terribly long stretches of sleep.
(Curious about how frequently kids wake up during the first year? Check out this reel for more information!)
I think when you get into six-month territory, the biggest misunderstanding then is – because this is such a polarizing topic, as every parent knows! – is that you’re left with two options: wait it out, or cry it out. So then, I get to help families find the middle ground.
When should I worry about my kid’s sleep?
Abby: It’s true that setting expectations as a parents is really hard, especially when kids are different from each other – your kid and your friend’s kid, your first kid and your second kid, all that! So how is a parent supposed to know when a sleep thing is normal, or when a sleeping thing is a problem that should be brought up to a pediatrician or sleep coach?
Kathleen: That’s a great question. So, with newborns, one thing that I see often is a newborn who doesn’t want to lay flat on their back. That can often point to an undiagnosed reflux, which can be addressed if it’s brought to a pediatrician. That’s a common one that I see in the first couple of months – “I can’t put my baby down!” The way a baby sleeps that early on is not usually a habit. It’s just nature. Babies are doing what they’re doing. So usually, if a baby strongly prefers being upright or screams when laid flat, that is something that I would bring to a pediatrician.
Later on, or from the get-go, if a baby is mouth breathing, snoring while they sleep, or sweating profusely (and it’s not a reflection of their attire being too much), I would definitely bring that up to your pediatrician. Or, if your child sleeps but doesn’t seem rested. Especially with preschoolers, often teachers will identify problems with being able to focus or participate.
But obviously most babies respond well to appropriate sleep work. I’ve rarely seen a baby who isn’t ready, after the five or six month range, to nail it. I do think that there are approaches that are better for certain-temperament babies, and maybe the thing that worked for your first child doesn’t work for your second child. But I do think that with consistency most babies respond well to most plans, if they’re followed all the way through, but I also think a professional can help figure out how each child will respond most positively and with the least amount of upset to their routine, the least amount of tears (that’s what most parents who come to me are looking for – less crying).
Abby: Crying from the baby and the parents, I assume!
Kathleen: Yeah, yeah!
Abby: Okay, those are really good clues. So if somebody is reading this and thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s my baby, my baby won’t lie down flat” or “Oh, wow, my preschooler’s having so much trouble at school, maybe this is why”, what’s the next step that you would recommend that person to take?
Kathleen: I have people fill out a questionnaire. It’s pretty detailed. Anyone who comes to me fills it out before we start to plan, so that I can say, like, “Can you go get this idea cleared by your pediatrician before we go ahead with sleep work?”. So, if there’s something that requires medication, a lifestyle change, a different diet, whatever it might be, checking with a pediatrician is a prerequisite to assuming that we can successfully do sleep work.
Abby: Got it, so the first step is reaching out to somebody who knows what to look for with sleep problems, like you.
Kathleen: Exactly, and I’m not trained to deal with medical red flags, obviously, but I can tell a parent, “I’m not comfortable working on sleep until we make sure that your baby feels fine.”
Abby: And that is something where medical paraprofessionals, such as doulas or sleep consultants, can help parents figure out the right questions to ask their medical care team.
Kathleen: Yeah, and it might be something that didn’t come up at the pediatrician. Babies go to the pediatrician so often typically, which is great, because things get caught pretty often I think. But if they’re not, you can have the questions that you need to ask to get the go-ahead for sleep work. I would not jump into sleep work if I didn’t think that a baby was healthy and developmentally able to handle it.
Abby: But it also sounds like you can help parents who are stuck at that point figure out what they need to do, and who they need to talk to.
Kathleen: Yeah, and I think another thing that comes up on that same note is if mom has high anxiety, or there’s something going on the parents’ marriage that I think is going to not allow the parents to work as a team for sleep work, or something like that, like, I will tell parents I’m not comfortable. That mother-baby dyad is so entwined. If Mom is not in a good place to manage sleep work, then it’s not going to go well for the baby. So then I would refer a mom to someone like you, someone who can help them find resources to get to a healthier mental place, where they can be ready to support their baby. Because babies can pick up vibes of, like, “Oh, this is so stressful!”. We want parents who are able to go in confidently and finish their plan all the way through, because the most fair thing to babies is to be consistent.
I’m really big on not giving babies mixed messages at any age. A newborn can sleep lots of different ways, so I would say the consistency really starts to matter in the four – six month range, when you’re out of that immediate newborn stage, you’re starting to see your day fall into a little bit of a pattern, you have some expectations, you can see roughly how the nights look and how the days look, they are more inclined to need stationary sleep as opposed to motion sleep at that time.
Abby: It’s a huge game-changer to have routine. And this highlights something that I think about a lot – the needs of the parents! Some of us need routine, need schedule, predictability! And all of us need sleep! So sometimes, I worry about people thinking, “I want to hire a sleep coach FOR ME. My baby is fine, my baby does normal things, she just needs to sleep on me all the time, and it’s just selfish of me not to want to hold her, what’s wrong with me?” NO! It’s a very normal human urge to want to have some autonomy, some control over your body, some space, some sleep! Everyone is best served if parents are healthy and happy and have the tools that they need to take care of their baby but also of themselves.
Kathleen: Yes, and this is where I always try to come in with parents. Like, I’ll have two parents on the phone and they’re not sure what their goals are, or one parent’s goal is different than the other. Oftentimes what I’ll see is that Dad has been sleeping in a different room for quite some time and wants to come back into his own bed, but the baby is taking over his spot, and Mom isn’t quite ready to let that go. Often, parents haven’t totally made up their minds on what they’re going for, and that can be really tricky.
So, I always try to start with the idea that sleep is a family issue. If everyone in the family is happy with the current arrangement and everyone is optimizing their sleep, I wouldn’t change anything. But if one person in the family is really struggling with the arrangement that’s where I would say, that’s probably a good time to make a change. It might not be just for the baby; if something in the family unit is not functioning, or the quality of life has been compromised for ANYBODY in that parent-baby dynamic, that’s when it might be time to make a change.
Abby: I love that approach of addressing sleep as a question for the whole family,
Kathleen: Yeah, it’s really interesting to hear from dads because I think moms have a different kind of connection with little babies. Sometimes it’s hard for dads to get in on that, and I do see often that they’re pushed to the side because Mom needs to be attached to the baby or feels the baby needs to be attached to her all the time, but Dad is really struggling. I think that is pretty common. And that’s a great time to call a sleep coach and make a plan.
Abby: Yeah. Do you have any tips for how to bring that conversation up? For somebody who is struggling? Because that is hard, if things are working really well for your partner, or your partner and your baby, but not for you. So how can families start that conversation?
Kathleen: I think what works well for a lot of people is to ask for a timeline to make a change. Oftentimes, I’ll talk to someone in the first few months of their baby’s life; they’re not going to be making changes imminently. But a lot of people, I’ve found, feel better if they know the timeline, like, “In three months, we’re going to change how sleep works”, and then it feels manageable. Whereas, if it stretches out indefinitely, that can feel really daunting.
Abby: So someone might even say, “Look, this isn’t working great for me but it’s working right now, so I just need to know there’s an end date to this. Can we set a date for changing this?”
Kathleen: Yeah, exactly, and part of my job is educating parents on when that is possible. Usually I would say between six and nine months is optimal for making those changes and setting those long-term habits. That is a seamless time to do it. You’re not dealing with any deeply ingrained habits. They’re developmentally able to settle on their own, with or without support, depending on whatever approach you are comfortable with. If you decide that you need your space back that’s usually a good time to do it. I think parents can find a lot of reassurance in knowing that this is possible.
What kinds of services do sleep coaches offer, and how can I sign up for them?
Abby: So how can someone get a hold of you if they are interested in your services?
Kathleen: My Facebook business page is Kathleen Heath Sleep Consulting. I keep it updated with different sleep tips, client testimonials, and education for certain ages and parents, usually based on conversations I’ve had with families. Sometimes I’ll do workshops and come up with topics that seem to be of interest to clients too. I can receive messages to the Facebook page or I can receive emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. My process is that when someone wants to do a consultation, I send out a sleep log and a questionnaire, so we can look at how a baby is sleeping 24 hours a day over several days. Then I can see the patterns and see how it fits into their age, because I really think timing is the number one foundation at any age for sleep. Very commonly, issues that come up have something to do with the timing of naps in relation to bedtime, total amounts of day sleep, total amount of night sleep, awake windows a baby is using.
A lot of parents will do a one hour mini-consultation with me just to kind of clean up the schedule, that kind of thing. My full plan comes with support for three weeks, follow-up calls, and a written plan, so that as a sleep plan unfolds, parents have someone holding their hand and making sure that things don’t go off track. But the one-time calls are a favorite of mine.
Abby: Okay, so it sounds like the mini consultations would be great in particular for someone who’s like, “Oh, this sounds really interesting to hire a sleep coach, but I don’t know that we want to invest in that right now, or that we are going to be awake enough to mentally invest in that right now, but we want some help!”
Kathleen: Yes! They do the questionnaire and the sleep log and we make a plan on that call. And then they can come back the next year, when their child’s sleep needs have changed, and figure out, “At this age, what time is my child is optimally ready for sleep? Why is my toddler suddenly resisting going to sleep at night?” – any of that kind of trouble.
Abby: Got it. And what’s the earliest you would ever see a client?
Kathleen: I do a newborn sleep education call.
Abby: Is that before the babies are even born or adopted?
Kathleen: Yes! A lot of people even give gift certificates for that at baby showers!
Abby: Oh, that’s a good gift. And would you do that for like grandma and grandpa or anyone else who will be in charge of sleep?
Kathleen: Oh, yeah. And that’s purely education. I don’t require any kind of intake for that. I go over expectations, like how much sleep you can expect as your baby grows, wake windows, number of naps, things like that. I think knowing when you can expect challenges to subside can really help you be in the moment and enjoy your baby.
Abby: And what’s the oldest child age you would help with?
Kathleen: Three or four. Once they get to that age, it gets more into psychological nuance. I love working with three year olds; they participate more in the process of change. Three year olds are very capable of going along with what you’re asking them to do. They’re usually pretty receptive to different approaches, so I do like that. For older kids, I can also connect parents to lots of coaches who work with older kids, so I can refer them there.
Abby Jorgensen: Awesome. So my last big question is, is there a question you wish I had asked you? Anything that we didn’t cover that you wanted us to cover?
Kathleen: I can talk about this all day! But I think we talked about most of the big stuff. I just love making sure parents understand that foundations come first, and making sure that timing is age appropriate. I love helping set up a sleep environment that welcomes and invites restful sleep, and checking in with emotional wellness parents (and the child, for older children). What I want to get out there is the understanding that we don’t start with behavioral approaches from a holistic standpoint – that is the icing on the cake! We start with making sure that your child is set up to succeed with sleep from all the otherd areas and make it as easy as possible. That’s the angle I like to come at it from.
If you enjoyed this conversation, keep an eye out for an additional post featuring Kathleen next week!