CONVERSATIONS WITH… A Baby Sleep Specialist

Need help getting bubba to snooze soundly? Singapore’s very own baby sleep expert Zoe Chu is just a call away…

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It was only after Zoe Chu, 37, became a new mum that she realised the importance of good sleep. This was when she was surviving on very little rest while caring for her twin sons, Brayden and Dylan.

Realising that she was making many mistakes and robbing her babies of the rest they needed to grow and thrive, Chu says, “I would rock them to sleep, feed them to sleep, gave them a pacifier and used the yao lan [baby hammock/sarong] during the day for their naps, creating an inconsistent sleep environment.”

Reacting to the lack of sleep, her babies became extra cranky, weepy and were so wired up that they were unable to drop off even when exhausted. When they did, Brayden and Dylan would only nap for 30 minutes and wake up bawling.

Sleep deprived, exhausted and unable to concentrate on anything, Chu turned to every sleep book on the market. After spending many hours looking for a sleep solution on the Internet, she found her ideal sleep training system. She implemented it on her twins when they were 6 months old. The boys, now 11, have slept like a dream since then.

“With my third child, Callum, who is now 6, I started sleep training at four months. With my fourth child, Alyssa, who is now 14 months, I managed to foster healthy sleep habits from day one,” Chu says. “I didn’t introduce any sleep props for her ― I made sure she understood routine, so she knew what to expect. I saw first-hand how amazing it was to start them early rather than waiting for them to be a few months old.”

“Some parents call me when they’re so sleep deprived. Quite often, they’re also going through postnatal depression from the lack of sleep and can’t seem to enjoy parenthood.”

She eventually turned her passion for sleeping well into her profession. Since 2013, Chu has been helping Singaporean families sleep better, offering tailor-made sleep-training solutions for children up to the age of 6. This is one of the many parenting services she provides under SG Supernanny.

“Some parents call me when they’re so sleep deprived. Quite often, they’re also going through postnatal depression from the lack of sleep and can’t seem to enjoy parenthood,” says Chu. “So, it’s not just about teaching them how to implement my sleep programme, but I also have to counsel them and be sensitive to their raw emotions. I can totally relate to what they are going through because I had baby blues, too, when I was a first-time mum to my twins.”

Chu, who has a masters in commerce and management from Lincoln University in New Zealand, has also got a graduate certificate in counselling, so that she can help her clients on a more emotional level.

SmartParents speaks to the child sleep expert to learn more about her unusual vocation…

What are some misconceptions about your job?

Recently I went to a client’s home and her mum was also there. She told me her mum thought I was going to hypnotise her grandchild! Haha…it was really funny actually. To be honest, when I share my profession with others, they always look surprised. They don’t really know what a baby sleep expert actually does. Some think I will be the one putting their baby to sleep or help them look after their baby. I guess my company name SG Supernanny makes them think that I might be a nanny as well!

How do you approach every client?

Firstly, I will get them to complete a sleep form which will allow me to review their baby’s sleep situation. My sleep form consists of questions about the family and their baby’s sleep situation and their daily routine. I will look at a few factors, such as their baby’s sleep environment, whether they have a routine and how they get their baby to sleep. Then I would also look at my client’s parenting philosophy and try to customise my sleep plan according to their style. This is very important as it will determine if my clients will follow through with my sleep plan.

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Sleep training is still a controversial topic. Why do you think that’s so?

It’s definitely controversial because there’s just so much information you can get online nowadays. If you are against sleep training, you will find articles and research against sleep training telling you all the harmful and dangerous outcomes of it. But if you are for sleep training, I am very certain you will also find millions of articles online supporting it. Personally, I have been on both side of the fence. I saw first-hand how bad it was not to sleep train my twins ― it wasn’t a pretty picture. After I sleep trained them, I can only see the benefits of sleep training. None of their long naps and sleeping through the night would have been possible without sleep training. I personally don’t understand why parents would think sleep training is child abuse when depriving our children of good quality sleep is actually so much worse.

Some parents feel that sleep training can be rigid and might not be suitable to bigger families. How do you respond to that?

I would say look at me. I have four kids and all of them sleep well. The more kids you have the more you should make sure your kids are sleep trained, so you and your kids can have a good night’s sleep. Sleep training is not about being rigid. I like to go with the flow but it’s also very important to have a routine and structure in place and prioritise baby’s sleep. Because if you don’t, that’s when your life can be rather chaotic.

“Sleep training is not about being rigid…but it’s also very important to have a routine and structure in place and prioritise baby’s sleep. Because if you don’t, that’s when your life can be rather chaotic.”

What are some misconceptions about sleep training you’d like to set straight?

Some people think sleep training means you let the baby cry it out and get themselves tired, then they will fall asleep. Others think sleep training means getting your baby to sleep through the night no matter what it takes ― even if it means ignoring them when they are hungry. Some also think it’s very unnatural to sleep train a baby. Let me try to clear all these misconceptions.

Sleep training, as the world likes to call it, should be called sleep untraining. Because if you really think about it, when you take your baby home from the hospital, they were able to sleep after you fed them and changed them, right? Then, slowly, as their sleep patterns change due to the biological development of their brain, it became harder for them to fall asleep easily. Then what do you start doing? You introduce a pacifier to shush them when they cry and to help them sleep, which is fair enough because babies love the sucking reflex.

If you’re breastfeeding your baby, you think, oh, maybe I can nurse them to sleep. But then it becomes so frequent, you wonder how can they possibly be hungry every hour? When that doesn’t work, you start rocking and cuddling them to sleep, and that works quite well. But soon they get bigger and heavier and you realise, oh my goodness, my arms feel like they are going to fall off. So then you think, okay, maybe I will get a baby hammock to do the job for me. Do you see the problems with all the scenarios I have painted? Now tell me who has been training your baby to sleep with all the sleep props or sleep associations in the first place?

What parents don’t realise is that your child is like a blank canvas. He or she relies on you to teach them healthy sleep habits, such as the art of self-settling.

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Some parents think babies will eventually learn how to sleep as they grow older and they don’t require any intervention. Do you agree?

No, unless you change their routine and sleep habits, your child will take a long time to sleep better. That is, if you don’t mind waiting for a few years for that to happen. Of course there’s a small percentage of babies who are just naturally good sleepers. If you have one of these, count your blessings! Most babies usually take a few years to outgrow their bad sleeping habits. I think it’s unfair on your child if you wait, because you are not just robbing them of good quality sleep, they are also relying on you to teach them the importance of healthy sleep habits, just as parents should teach them good values in life.

What do you love most about being a baby sleep expert?

I love it when my clients tell me their success stories. When they go from sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and sometimes, even depression to getting a good night’s sleep and being happier overall. Often, they would tell me that their babies wake up happy and smiling and are no longer cranky and crying. When my clients tell me they are glad they found me and thank me for changing their lives in so many ways, it really warms my heart.

“Your child is like a blank canvas, he or she relies on you to teach them healthy sleep habits, such as the art of self-settling.”

Could you share one of your most memorable success stories?

The most memorable one is also my most favourite client of all time. When Kimberly contacted me, her 7-month-old baby Natalie was waking up multiple times at night and catnapping during the day, for 20 to 30 minutes. She needed to be carried and rocked to sleep all the time by grandma, mummy and daddy. As she was getting heavier, her mum started putting her in a baby carrier, and walking her up and down the house trying to get her to sleep ― sometimes for up to an hour.

After implementing my easy-to-follow baby sleep programme, Natalie was sleeping through the night for 11 to 12 hours and napping for one to two hours for each of her daytime naps. It only took one week to see the difference. What made it so memorable compared to my other success stories is when Kimberly’s mum, who is Natalie’s main caregiver, was a bit sceptical at first, but after going through my consultation, she was very impressed and even asked me a lot of questions. She’s very open minded and teachable and I’m totally in awe of her. In fact, after seeing Natalie’s improvements, she and her daughter Kimberly even made me a 12-minute video testimonial to share their experience.

What are some life lessons you’ve learnt so far from your profession?

Being a baby sleep consultant, I need to be very patient, keep calm and carry on to encourage my clients when they are having a hard time. My job is also made harder and more difficult when other family members, such as my client’s parents or in-laws, do not agree with my sleep programme and methods and start doing things differently for their babies. This is very challenging for me as I feel bad for my clients who usually really want to implement my sleep programme, but they can’t convince their main caregivers to get on board.

Complete these sentences…

* The one superpower I would like to have is… To have a magic wand that can immediately get all babies to sleep so well that all families will be well rested.
* I wish more new mums knew that… Healthy sleep habits are very important for babies and they can be fostered early on with the right tools and knowledge.
* If I could say one thing to a new mum who feels like she’s failing at motherhood it would be… Don’t be too hard on yourself, motherhood is a tough journey and most of us experience challenges one way or another. We don’t have to be a perfect mother, but we can try to be the best mother we can be for our kids. While there are always challenges and obstacles ahead, it is also very rewarding to see our babies grow and develop well.

Photos: Zoe Chu

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