How Parents Can Help Their Kids Become Better Sleepers: An Interview with the Sleep Lady Kim West

Sleep expert Kim West, the Sleep Lady

The Sleep Lady offers insights on sleep training and shares helpful tips for parents on how to help children become better sleepers.

Sleep can be a contentious subject for many parents, whether it’s difficulties getting children to go to bed or sleep through the night, or their own lack of quality rest.

One method several parents have turned to is sleep coaching, which involves training both parents and kids in skills designed to make bedtime easier. One method of sleep coaching is “The Sleep Lady Shuffle”, developed by Kim West, LCSW-C.

Kim is a mother of two, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and family and child therapist with over 20 years of experience.

She is also an accomplished author and sleep training expert known as “The Sleep Lady®” who has helped tens of thousands of parents all over the world get a better night’s sleep by providing expert advice and gentle sleep coaching for children.

Kim has appeared on several television programs including Dr. Phil, the Today Show and CNN and in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Parenting, the Associated Press and many others.

We had the opportunity to interview Kim, gaining insight into her unique coaching methods and expert advice for better sleep. Read about her best tips for parents looking to help infants and kids get healthy sleep and take the stress out of bedtime.

Rosie: How did you get started in the sleep field? What got you interested in pursuing this path?

Kim: I am a licensed clinical social worker and have spent 22 years doing individual and family therapy in private practice. I saw my brother and sister-in-law struggle with sleep and when I got pregnant, I was scared of this happening to me but I hoped it would be different for me.

After I had my first daughter, however, I had struggles with bad advice regarding sleep. My daughter was also diagnosed with jaundice.

I was told to wake her up every hour and half to force her to eat but this proved very difficult. They suggested stripping her down and placing a cold washcloth on her back to wake her.

So, I set my alarm every hour and half and eventually I was so tired and was basically falling apart. By the second night I could not wake her up. So I came up with a plan, told my husband and he agreed.

I put her in the crib, and when she woke up I went in and fed her. She began improving and I stopped listening to unsolicited advice and listened to my intuition instead, and my baby thrived. She barely cried and started putting herself to sleep and then completely slept through the night.

After helping others with similar issues and suggestions from friends and my Sister-in-Law, I started adding sleep training to my social work practice and it just exploded from there.

First it was friends, then friends of friends, and then people I didn’t even know were calling me for help. Then I got picked up by media and TV, and word of mouth just really grew. In between these years, I also wrote my three books and helped tens of thousands of families all over the world. Four years ago, I also started training others to do sleep coaching.

One fun story is how I received the name “The Sleep Lady”. A three-year old who was being sleep coached overheard his mom talking with me on the phone. He came in the room and asked his mom “Who are you talking to?” and she said “Oh, I’m talking about your sleep last night”, and the boy goes “Oh, it’s the sleep lady!” And I thought, hmm, I like that, and it’s stuck with me ever since!

Baby Sleeping
Photo courtesy of Bigstockphoto

Rosie: Very cute! Tell me a little about your sleep philosophy in practice and how coaching works.

Kim: How I work and how the coaches I’ve trained work is to get to know the family and then consult with them.

The family fills out a consultation form and I read it before the consultation. I ask more questions during the consultation and work to educate and create a customized plan with the parents and then we figure out when they will start the sleep plan.

I always get a green light from the their pediatrician and any other experts working with the child before starting. Then we create plan and map it out. The most popular night to start is Friday, by the way!

After beginning, the first three mornings I call the family, then follow up with eight calls over two to three weeks until the child is sleeping and napping on track.

About my method; there are many, many books out there on sleep and kids but there are really only three ways to change behavior.

On one end is extinction, popularized by Dr. Marc Weissbluth. With extinction, the child is placed in bed awake, parents are told don’t go in and to let the child cry it out. This is most successful because the parent can’t mess it up with inconsistencies. But, a lot parents have difficulty with this especially for babies that are long criers.

Next comes graduated extinction, developed by Dr. Richard Ferber. With graduated extinction, parents put the baby in bed awake and check on them in set increments that are gradually longer without picking the child up. This again is to prevent the parent from hovering.

On the other end would be co-sleeping, sleeping with the child in the bed or continuing to do nothing to change sleep habits until the parents are ready. This works for some but not for all. I am not against co-sleeping when it is done safely and if it works for the family; I’m all for family well being and doing what works best for everyone.

Then there is my method, fading, also named “The Sleep Lady Shuffle”. You put the baby in their crib or bed awake. The parent stays next to them for verbal and physical reassurance, but gradually moves further away from the crib. You can pick them up to calm down but not to put to them to sleep.

The process is set up to basically wean the parent off of intervention as the child begins to incorporate and develop sleep skills. Every three nights, you move further away until you have “faded” out of the room.”

Rosie: How does sleep training factor in to age, from newborns through toddler stages?

Kim: The research actually does not support sleep training infants under four months old. Holding, feeding or comforting them to sleep is still okay at this phase for newborns and most are not yet ready to sleep through the night.

Between four and six months some babies are ready to start sleeping through night and some are not. The easiest, ideal age is between six and eight months for healthy full-term babies.

Nine to 12 months is a tiny bit harder as they can start standing up and clamp down on the sides of the crib. It is harder as they get older because they get smarter and have more skills to resist sleep.

I would say under two to two-and-a-half years are hardest to work with when they are in a bed not a crib. They don’t understand cognitively that they need to stay in bed at night.

Children between three and five also tend to be harder because they have a longer history of parents being inconsistent with sleep habits and they can easily get out of their beds and rooms.

Rosie: What are the factors that affect crying at night?

Kim: It is important to know that you can never guarantee no crying.

When you teach your child comforting measures to sleep like lying in bed with them or rocking them to sleep and then you decide to stop that, they will cry. Preverbal children will let you know they are upset by crying while verbal children will cry and have words for you.

There are so many things that go into crying like the age of the child and their temperament. Very alert children tend to be smarter and they tend to have more disturbed sleep and are more sensitive. They have that “I know what I want and I’m willing to hold out until I get it” personality which can make sleep a struggle.

The third factor that affects crying at night is how inconsistent the parent has been. If they have tried to stop and start sleep training before and don’t follow through it will be harder.

Baby Crying
Photo courtesy of Bigstockphoto

Rosie: What are the most important things parents should know about sleep and kids?

Kim: The number one thing is to make sleep a priority. Children need sleep to grow and learn, and they need it even more than we do. It affects development, learning and their ability to retain information.

Often as adults we don’t prioritize our own sleep so we may not prioritize it for kids either. Prioritizing sleep may also mean parents are home more for naps and early bedtimes.

Kids need a lot of sleep and it’s important to make sure they get enough. Children up to nine years old need at least 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night. Parents need to make sure they are going to bed early enough.

Bedtime needs to allow enough time for children get the right amount of sleep. For example, if a five-year-old child needs to wake up by 7:00am for school, they need to be asleep by 8:00pm. Not just in bed, but also asleep.

And different ages will have different bedtimes, which can be a bit challenge. The main thing is to pay attention to what a child’s sleep cues are and don’t miss the sleep window. If they stay up too late they will get that second wind which can make bedtime more difficult.

Rosie: Your focus is on infants, but what do you think is the most important thing new parents should keep in mind when it comes to their own sleep?

Kim: It’s always said, but I think the best advice really is to nap when your baby naps and accept help. I can’t say it enough.

I would always be trying to get stuff done during the day and practically had to be chained to the bed to get enough sleep. Otherwise, I’d be falling apart by 4:00pm. New parents should stick to the basics and get sleep whenever possible.

It would be great if you could work in shifts. Look for support from your husband and family members. They can take care of the baby while you sleep and help feed the baby sometimes.

GOOD NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Happy
Photo courtesy of SleepLady.com

From sticking with a consistent sleep plan and following intuition, to making sleep a top priority, Kim provided some excellent tips for sleep-deprived parents (and future parents). After all, awareness of solutions can be half the battle when you’re faced with major sleep troubles, whether your own or with infants and kids.

If you are looking for more information on Kim or sleep coaching, visit her website or check out her books – her first is “GOOD NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Happy”. Kim also blogs regularly on healthy sleep and tips for parents, with popular subjects including early rising and sleep regression.

Have any questions on your children’s sleeping habits? Do you struggle with your child’s night time routine?

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Rosie Osmun

Rosie is the Creative Content Manager and resident writer at Amerisleep. She finds the science of sleep fascinating and loves researching and writing about beds as an ambassador of the Amerisleep brand. Her favorite mattress is the ultra-plush Liberty Bed, and she is also passionate about traveling, painting, languages and history.