You work at night. It’s noon. Why aren’t you asleep right now?
You’re not going to believe this – I have sleeping issues. Ever since I was a little girl. I sleep four hours a day, and I work all night, seven days a week.
Did you develop these sleep-coaching skills through your own experience as a mother?
Yes. I have five kids, and with my first three I made all the mistakes that one could. By the time I had the twins, I also had a two-year-old, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old. So it was out of desperation that I had to come up with something. A plan. And it saved me. I came to America a year later [in 1990] because my brother was a Navy Seal for America’s Navy. He got shot in Panama and he was in a wheelchair. He introduced me to this family that had six-month-old triplets. He said, “Suzy, your kids are so good. Do you think you can help them?” I was like, “I can try.” Then I started working five nights a week, seven nights a week. People started approaching me: “Do you think it would work for quads?” “Do you think it would work for kids with special needs?” And it never, ever failed.
So your techniques have worked for every baby you’ve ever coached?
Yes. As long as you’re consistent, every baby has the ability to learn. The average baby has the ability, if they’re healthy, to be sleeping twelve hours [at a stretch] by twelve weeks. Now, every baby is unique – some will start sleeping twelve hours earlier [than twelve weeks], like if they were born with more weight, and some will be sleeping twelve hours by fourteen or fifteen weeks. You just have to follow through with your plan.
How do parents know when their baby is ready to begin the process of learning to sleep through the night?
There are three criteria that need to be met: the baby needs to be eight weeks old, he needs to be nine pounds and he needs to be able to eat twenty-four ounces of food in a twenty-four-hour period. You might wonder if you’re nursing your baby, how can you tell how much food they’re getting. If a baby [feeds] consistently and easily on a schedule of three-to-four hours, he’s getting his nutritional needs met.
If you make sure they got a lot of food during the day, then all you can do is put them in an optimum position to learn to sleep.
You call this first stage “baby boot camp.”
Yes. Baby boot camp is a step-by-step program for how to get your baby to sleep through the night. That’s when we develop a nighttime routine, with cues that we set in place so the baby can make connections: “Okay, so when the music plays, and my mom talks to me like this, and the room is darkened, and I feel this tired, this is what I’m supposed to do.” The learning ability is there, and that’s what parents need to understand – learning to sleep is just like learning to walk and talk. You’re naturally wired to learn that skill. When you’re teaching your baby to talk, you sit in front of the baby and say, “Da da.” It’s all about repetition.
And at this point, you’re gradually spacing out the baby’s nighttime feedings so that he can sleep more and eat less for longer and longer periods of time?
Well, what I say is that when babies cry, it’s a way of communicating several things, not just hunger. I have a lot of problems with certain people, especially lactation consultants, because they assume I put the kids on this really rigid schedule. What I’m saying is consider other things before you feed them, because otherwise you’re going to develop a baby that wants to snack. The baby will learn to do whatever you want him to do. If you want him to eat three ounces every three hours, he will. If you want him to eat one ounce every hour, he’ll do it.
What about sleeping with your baby? Is that okay?
That’s okay, if that’s what makes you and your family happy. But you just need to think, how many kids are you going to have, and when? It’s not fair to tell your baby, “You can sleep with me,” and then a year down the road when he’s waking up in the middle of the night, you say, “You can’t sleep with me anymore.” What’s going to happen then is your baby is going to cry because you’re breaking the deal.
You offer personal sleep-coaching services, where you’ll spend nights at parents’ homes and coach their baby through the night. First of all, when you’re not actively adjusting the baby, talking to the baby and helping the baby sleep, are you just sitting there by the crib for twelve hours? Don’t you get bored?
[Laughs] No. I have the best job in the world. Usually we work with multiples, but let’s say we’re with a single baby – we read a book, we fold the baby laundry. I go to the family, assess the situation and see what it is we need to teach this skill to this baby.
So what exactly are you doing to help the baby sleep while you’re sitting by the crib overnight?
I stay there because I want to know the sleep pattern. When does she have the light sleep and the deep sleep? I see if the environment is okay. Let’s say the baby goes to sleep okay, but wakes up in the middle of the night. What’s getting in the way of this child learning to go back to sleep on her own? Because she has the ability. The only way I’m going to know is if I stay in the situation she’s in. I had one baby whose foot would go through the rail, and he would cry because he’d try to pull the foot back and it would hurt. The mother heard and she’d go to the room, but by the time she got there he’d managed to get his foot out. So she didn’t know what was wrong. Babies are very easily stimulated, so that sometimes just the light from a clock was irritating enough [to keep them awake], but they don’t know how to say it. It’s my job to figure out what’s going on.
So, you’re there to observe as much as anything else.
Yes. And one thing that I think is important to mention is that parents are too scared of crying. Crying is just a way of communicating. And the parents rush in and try to fix it, when sometimes they need to stand back and watch. Of course, with my method, which is a limited-cry solution, I always tell them, “Don’t let them cry it out.” Because I believe babies can get to a hysterical stage where they feel lost, like they don’t know how to get out, and it’s the parents’ job to step in. So when they’re hysterical, go in, calm them down, and it’s like, let’s try again, and again, and again, until he gives in and is like, “Oh, okay, now I know what I’m supposed to do.” It’s like putting the baby up on his two feet to try and get the first step.
I would imagine that because you’re sometimes working with parents in urban areas, your clients might have atypical schedules. Theoretically, if you have a dark room with heavy shades, is it all the same to the baby if it sleeps from, say, midnight to noon as from seven p.m. to seven a.m.?
Yes it is. In one family, the father was a musician, and we trained the baby to sleep from eleven a.m. to eleven p.m. because the dad would get home late and needed to sleep late. And when it’s time for school, [the child] needs to learn a different schedule. I believe that parents make the rules, bend the rules and break the rules. Your baby is going to be as flexible as you make them. There will be a Sunday morning when it’s snowing outside, and it’s seven o’clock in the morning and you want to sleep with your baby. Go ahead! Take him from his crib and bring him in bed with you. Enjoy your baby, because this time is going to fly. But at the same time, be aware that everybody needs a consistent rhythm.
For more information, see Suzy’s website: babycoach.net.