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Baby won't sleep? Hire a professional

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Tracey Ruiz answers questions for former client, Mireille Vilain, while 8-month-old Tobias plays nearby. (Courtesy of Aim 2 Please Photography)

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Tracey Ruiz reviews a swaddling technique to soothe 8-month-old Tobias Vilain for his mother, Mireille. (Courtesy of Aim 2 Please Photography)

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Six and a half month-old Griffin Lane Fletcher, who now sleeps long stretches at night, is rested enough to play. (Courtesy of Shawna Fletcher)

Wendy Kennish and her husband, Bernie, had not had a good night’s sleep in nearly three years. Their 2-year-old daughter, Claire, had been a restless sleeper, and her younger brother, 10-month-old Tim, was waking up every hour. Desperate, they did what a number of parents are doing: They called in a sleep consultant to help get their child to sleep.

While there are no figures on the number of sleep consultants working across the country, those in the field say their agencies are swamped. According to Dr. Judith Owens, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., parents began turning to sleep consultants about five years ago. The reasons, she says, are simple: Often parents live far away from their extended families and lack the support they used to rely on to get through the early months of parenthood. On top of that, she adds, the number of advice books for parents can be overwhelming.

“Some parents have a lot of difficulty following through on the advice they get from clinics and books,” Owens said. “Having someone holding their hand can be reassuring.”

Kennish and her husband hired Tracey Ruiz, owner of Sleep Doula, a sleep consulting firm in Toronto, in December. After an initial consultation, they chose to have Ruiz stay overnight to help implement Tim’s new sleep plan. Kennish put Tim to bed at 7:30 p.m. the first night and when he cried at 2:30 a.m., Ruiz went in to see him, hiding behind a rocking chair so Tim wouldn’t know she was there. She “shushed” him to sleep in 20 minutes.

The next time Kennish woke up, it was 5 a.m. Tim had slept so well that Ruiz decided she did not need to stay over again. The next night, his parents and Ruiz watched on a video monitor as Tim quickly settled down after being put to bed. He slept straight through the night and has not had trouble sleeping since.

“It feels like magic,” Kennish said. “It makes everything easier--work, marriage. It makes life easier.”

Ruiz insists there is no big secret to her technique. “I am not a baby-whisperer,” she said. “I hate the word. It would mean that I have a gift that other parents don’t have, but parents can do this.”

Ruiz draws on material from the “The Happiest Baby on the Block” DVDs and books, which are written by Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician of 30 years who also trains sleep consultants across North America.

Ruiz launched Sleep Doula in 2004 in response to requests from clients of her more traditional doula practice. A typical doula helps parents during childbirth and for the first three months of the baby’s life. After that point, Ruiz and her six sleep doulas will step in if needed, working with parents until their child is approximately 2. Her agency has worked with more than 300 families in Canada, the United States and a few overseas countries. Ruiz has been getting so many calls, from moms, dads and grandparents, that she is now hiring staff in the United States.

Ruiz isn’t the only one bombarded with calls from frazzled parents. Vivian Sonnenberg, a veteran baby nurse who has run a sleep consulting business for nearly six years in Marin, Calif., said she was sometimes booked solid weeks in advance. Sonnenberg, who figures she has met with an average of seven families a week over the last three years, said that one family in Montana was so desperate that they flew her to their home in a private jet.

Adding to parents’ self-doubt is the fear of emotionally damaging their baby by not responding to every cry, said Kim West, a clinical social worker who has also worked with more than 2,000 families as a sleep consultant over the past eight years. Parents call sleep consultants to be coached through the process, so they can feel that what they are doing is right for their baby, West said.

Shawna Fletcher, a single mom in Toronto, was worried about her 4-month-old son, Griffin Lane. He was waking up every 45 minutes and had to be walked around the house all day just to keep him from crying. Fletcher called Ruiz at her mother’s suggestion.

“I told Tracey, ‘I can’t leave this defenseless person alone in his room while he cries’,” Fletcher said. So Ruiz suggested a method called “gradual extinction,” where Fletcher taught Griffin how to calm himself over a few nights. Whenever Fletcher had questions or Griffin woke up in the night, she would call Ruiz, who would reassure her that his behavior was normal and that she was doing everything right.

Fletcher had read every book she could find but had been too tired to figure out how to fix the problem on her own, she said.

“Everyone thinks their baby is different and you want your individual concerns addressed,” Fletcher said. “It was great to have someone to talk to so that my specific questions were answered.” Griffin, who is now nearly 7 months old, is sleeping up to six and seven hours at a time.

“We can play right up until bedtime now,” Fletcher said. “He is so much happier now; before he was beside himself with exhaustion.”

E-mail: dh2296@columbia.edu