First-time mother and neurosurgery resident Tracy Flanders was facing a November deadline to return to the operating room. As the day loomed, she was panicking over her nearly 5-month-old daughter’s struggles to go to sleep.
Worse, the baby flat out refused to let anybody other than her mother, not even her father, settle her in the crib — particularly worrisome given Flanders’ impending all-nighters.
“It was literally World War III,” the 31-year-old said from her University City home. “She would cry for hours.”
Flanders had read how-to books on baby sleep, searched mommy blogs for tips, asked family for advice. Nothing worked. Desperate for help, she found baby sleep whisperer Erica Desper on Google. A few days and a few hundred dollars later, the little girl now sleeps like a dream.
Desper, founder of Confident Parenting, is among the growing number of consultants who advise new parents — and sometimes not-so-new parents of older children, including teens — on matters of sleep. The profession attracted attention a few months ago when “baby sleep fairy” Brandi Jordan, known for her A-list clientele, made headlines for reportedly helping Meghan Markle’s mother learn some tricks in anticipation of royal grandson Archie’s arrival.
“In the last five years, there’s been an explosion of sleep consultants,” said Deborah Pedrick, founder of the Family Sleep Institute in Sellersville, which graduates more than 70 students a year from its online certification program. The International Association of Child Sleep Consultants, which Pedrick cofounded in 2012, has seen its membership climb from 53 to 224 since 2014, she said.
Children usually can sleep through the night at about 6 months. But about one in five parents has a baby that age experiencing “nocturnal wakefulness,” according to a 2016 study published in the journal Pediatrics. Many sleep-deprived millennial parents view hiring a coach — starting at a few hundred dollars for a plan and phone and email support, climbing to several thousand dollars for in-home, multinight guidance — as a sensible option.
“We live in an age where people are more comfortable outsourcing things and saying, ‘I need help,’” said Desper, who runs sleep workshops for area pediatric practices. What about the grandparents? “It’s all different. They say rub whiskey on their gums or give them Benadryl. No, no, we don’t do that anymore.”
In households with two working parents, especially when mothers head back to work just a few weeks after the birth, a baby whisperer seems less luxury and more necessity.
“When your kid sleeps, it just changes your life,” said Sherrie Coughlin, a registered nurse who recently added sleep consultations to her Philadelphia-based My City Baby Nurse + Nanny services. “When it’s not addressed, it can follow you through life.” She recently helped a 10-year-old with ADHD who often made a scene at bedtime “unlearn” bad habits.
The baby whispering industry is unregulated and no specific training is required to hang up a shingle. Even with certified consultants, pediatrician Elizabeth Murray, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, cautioned, “I would hope their pediatrician is involved.”
“What makes me nervous about the concept,” she said, “is that it feels like another opportunity for parents to feel that they’re not good parents and can’t get resources on their own.”
Infants, Murray emphasized, just don’t always sleep when adults would like. “Being a parent is exhausting,” she said.
Murray advises establishing a consistent bedtime routine, placing 3- to 6-month-olds in the crib when they are drowsy. Perhaps hardest for many parents is her other recommendation: not rushing to pick up the child at every whimper. “Engaging over and over again in the middle of the night is not helpful.” (The AAP offers more information at HealthyChildren.org.)
While sleep consultants say much the same, as do books and blogs, parents note major differences in hiring their own personal whisperer. Coaches, they say, demand accountability and boost confidence in new parents facing too much information, some of which seems conflicting, and even feelings of shame for letting a baby cry.
“Mike and I need a third party,” said Debbie Parnes, 35.
Said husband Michael Herman, 36: “We just don’t trust ourselves.”
When Jacoby, now 4, was an infant, “we tried to move him to his own room at 3 months,” said Parnes, an orthodontist. “It was a disaster. He was up every hour. We were losing our minds.”
Enter pediatric sleep specialist Jennifer Schindele, who started Gift of Sleep Consulting in Harleysville in 2012. “I help to bring clarity,” said the mother of two, whose own baby sleep battles led her to the profession. She starts with one basic question, and a clear plan: “What is your goal? OK, this is how we’re going to get to this goal.”
The process worked so well that the couple hired her again in October for 15-week-old Estie’s move to her own room.
One evening, Schindele presented the child’s sleep plan at the Parnes-Herman home in Berwyn to the parents and their nanny, Annette Zeglen.
“I was so skeptical when they did it with Jacoby,” said Zeglen, who has two grown children. “I thought this is never going to work. But I did everything I was told, and after the first week, wow, I was amazed.”
Estie dozed in a wrap carrier her mother wore as Schindele detailed the bedtime routine — down to the volume of the white noise machine. She explained the “Staylistening” approach, where a parent stays in the nursery, offering comfort, such as soothing words or reassuring touch, to a teary baby every few minutes.
“Crying,” she said, “is a baby’s way of communicating. Most likely, Estie is going to vocalize she’s not happy with these changes. Just stay focused. Those first couple of nights can be challenging. Don’t give up. Know she can do this and have faith in her.”
Over the six-day process, Parnes and Herman kept in touch with Schindele through a sleep log, calls, and texting app. After a rough two nights, Estie settled to sleep with only a few minutes of upset, her parents reported. By the end of the week, she slept until 5:40 a.m., fussed, but then fell back asleep until about 6:30 a.m.
“Some of the best money I ever spent,” said Herman, an electrical engineer. “When you first wake up and realize, ‘I didn’t have to wake up three hours ago,’ it’s confusing. Then, ‘Yeah, we did it!’”
Flanders, the neurosurgery resident and first-time mom, was more reluctant to hire a consultant. “It’s hard to admit that you can’t do it” on your own, she said. Now, she swears by the baby whisperer as a life — or, rather, sleep — saver.
In fact, Flanders already has designs to hire Desper, who offers advice in other areas, for the next big parenting hurdle: “I told her in two years, I’ll probably consult with her about potty training.”
These suggestions, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, are for babies. Find tips for older children at the AAP website.
Newborns sleep about 16 to 17 hours a day -- but sometimes just for an hour or two at a time. Regular patterns tend to establish at around 6 months. As with everything else, though, all babies are unique.