Baby-Led Sleep: A Different Kind of Sleep Training

“Is she sleeping through the night yet?”
It takes about 6 minutes post-birth before someone asks you this. At first, I assumed it was concern for my well-being, for my babies’ development. “How sweet!” I thought. “This stranger at Target really wants to have a dialogue about infant night-time habits!”

New parents, I am sorry to tell you that is a load of crap. There are two reasons people ask you if your baby is sleeping. The first is fear. There is a very good possibility that their baby is also not sleeping and they are looking for someone else with whom to toss around under-eye concealer recommendations in a 3 am group text when you’re all up rocking your babies back to sleep. You’ll recognize these people by their extra-large lattes, look of genuine empathy, and possibly mismatched shoes.

The second kind of person that asks you about your baby’s sleep is the overzealous advice-giver and these folks, well, they have ideas for you. These folks are the ones who will warn you that if you don’t start letting your kid cry you are creating a spoiled monster of a sociopath who will grow up to do monstrous things, causing your imagination and anxiety to run wild. I know I panicked! What would come of sweet baby? Would they grow up and be awful people, wreaking havoc as criminals or bathroom line-cutters? I would sometimes lay awake at night while my “troubled” baby was doing their 1-hour stretch of sleep and think about how ruinous I was as a mother that had not yet let baby cry it out.

The thing is, I had no idea, and no-one told me otherwise, that sleep training and crying it out weren’t synonymous. In fact, three kids and 5.5 years later, I was so in the dark, that when I received a message one day about the opportunity to take a free online sleep training course, I immediately responded, “Thanks, but no thanks. I am not so good at the letting my kid cry thing.” When Shawnee Baker, a certified pediatric sleep consultant, RN, lactation consultant, parent educator and mom of 3 replied that cry it out (CIO) was actually the opposite of the work she did, my interest was piqued. I mean, I was sharing one bedroom with my husband, 18-month old daughter, 3-year-old son and 5-year old son in a house with space to spare. The master looked like a mattress factory, and while the set-up had worked for a while to encourage longer and deeper sleep for all of my kids (and, in turn, us parents), we were in the middle of a rough patch. Like if you had sandpaper and then on top of the sandpaper you layered a Brillo pad and razor blades – that kind of rough patch. So really, what did I have to lose?

Over the next two months, I joined two online courses facilitated by Shawnee and her partner, Lauren Heffernan, a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Educator, through the company they founded, Baby-led Sleep. The first course focused on infant sleep while the second was centered on toddler sleep. And both courses centered not on what I needed to better train my kids to do, but on what I needed to reflect upon and better understand about the underlying needs being expressed in my kids’ overnight habits. The courses guided me in examining not just how my kids were sleeping, but why…What were the environment and the associations we had all established around our bedtime and overnight routines? What were the emotions we all felt around bedtime? Did we employ that time to our benefit in relaxing, bonding moments or did we all feel rushed and pressured and anxious about getting and staying to sleep and what we had to do to make that happen? (The answer was that one, by the way. Big time that one.)

What we focused on over the course of our sessions was not a single fix-it strategy. There were no band-aids. It was a thoughtful and comprehensive study of our own families, our own selves, and how to mold our own parenting to meet our own expectations of sleep success. With daily postings of  carefully curated articles and video lessons led by Shawnee and Lauren, we each endeavored on our own journeys to better sleep.

For me, one of the most powerful lessons I learned came early on in the course. Through reading, discussion via Facebook post, and reflection, I began to closely examine and tease out the expectations I held for my children’s sleep. How many of the goals I was setting were a necessity for me, my husband, and/or my kids? And how much of the image I had created for what sleep should look like came from the external pressure I felt when I looked at the “good sleepers” in my friends’ houses around me? This was a crucial part of what had been missing in my previous thinking about how to make my kids better sleepers.

For many people, the way my family sleeps would be not be ideal. I do not require they stay in their rooms at night-wakings or that they fall asleep without me present. I believe that we will get to that point – that they will feel secure enough to be entirely independent in their sleep – but I am not comfortable pulling away as a source of comfort for those moments just yet. However I know, and my husband knows, that we have come a long way in this last month since we started focusing our efforts around this. My 22-month old has finally weaned from night-time nursing and now looks forward to bedtime stories and cuddles with her daddy as part of her nightly routine. My 3- and 5-year olds have moved back into their bunk beds after their months of sleeping on the floor of our room. (By the way, this was spurred by a false security alarm going off at 3 am because those things always seem to happen while everyone is tucked peacefully in their beds and never when everyone is at school. WHY THOUGH?!) I still lay with them while they fall sleep but they know I leave the room now and that is a huge step for them. And, here’s the really awesome part, I am more rested than I have been in a long time, and while that is of course on a sliding scale of “mom-rested”, I will take it.

Don’t get me wrong. I still look at my friends’ kids who sleep 12 hours a night happily in their cribs and take 2-hour naps, asking to please do so, and I do still feel a borderline inappropriate mixture of admiration and envy at times. But what I have stopped doing is judging myself and deeming myself inadequate for the ways sleep looks different in our family. And I have stopped feeling hopeless when that sleep just isn’t enough for my kids or for me because I know now that there is a slew of information at my fingerprints and a couple very talented and empathic ladies who can help us get there in a way that feels more comfortable for our family dynamic than any other sleep coaching I have seen.

And even beyond the sleep, what I most appreciated about the “Baby-led Sleep” courses was the reminder that sleep habits aren’t isolated behaviors in a vacuum. Instead the way we sleep is a reflection of the waking hours we spend. I remember now to look at sleep as a diagnostic tool to reflect upon the choices I make throughout the day. I use this tool to remind myself to connect and listen in to what is happening with my kids.

And, as an added bonus, now when that over-zealous advice giver stops me at Target to tell me how tired I look, I am rested enough to remember all my most colorful words in reply.

If you want to know more about Baby-Led Sleep, you can check them out on Facebook at Awakened Sleep Coach or Baby-Led Sleep, and join their Baby-Led Sleep Discussion Group. You can also connect on Instagram, and their website

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