A Conversation with Kim West, the Sleep Lady


Kim West, a mother of two and a Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical, has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 13 years. Known as The Sleep Lady® by her clients, during the past 10 years she has helped more than a thousand tired parents learn to listen to their intuition, recognize their child’s important cues and behaviors, and gently create changes that promote and preserve his or her healthy sleep habits.

With Joanne Kenen, Kim wrote Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep and Wake Up Happy (CDS Books). She has appeared on "The Today Show," NBC Nightly News and CNN, and has been written about in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

At Edge Life Expo 2006, Kim will teach us about the importance of children’s sleep and how to gently teach your child to go to sleep – and sleep through the night. Her techniques are applicable for children up to 5 years old, and her tips are sure to interest all parents of young children.

She spoke with Edge Life about her family and her upcoming talk.

You are known as the Sleep Lady. Is this a name you picked for yourself or one that you have been "given" by others?
Kim West:
It’s actually a cute story, so I’m glad that you asked this question. Just so you know a little about my work, I do a full history with the family and create an evaluation. I like to have both parents either present in my office or both on the phone, so that we’re together as a united front. We create a plan, and then we decide when we are going to start.

I work with children newborn and all the way up to age 5, over the phone, with their parents. I call them in the morning and coach them through the process. I have a more gentle process. For instance, this morning I just spoke with one of the parents of a 3 year old I’m working with, and he got on the phone with me. For him, it showed that I actually exist. He asked where I live, what’s my name, and am I a mommy too?

Sometimes…parents will use me in a way, like "the sleep lady says" this, and "the sleep lady says that." One day, I was searching for my name, and frankly, the media was searching for a name for me. Some had called me the "lullaby lady," for example, trying to find something cute, I guess. But it was a child who called me that for the first time by saying, "Is that the sleep lady?" And I thought, that’s it! That’s my name. It was a child who named me.

Out of the mouths of babes. It’s somewhat strange that a 3 year old would even talk on the phone, because sometimes my own will and other times he’ll want nothing to do with it.
Oftentimes they just want to hear that I exist, and then they hang up.

What inspired you to enter into this area of expertise, and to share your thoughts with the public and to help others?
This is probably the most common question I’m asked. I am a clinical social worker, and I had a family therapy practice. I’ve been a social worker for 14 years, and I’m a mom. I like to sleep.
I saw my brother and his wife struggle with their first child to the point where it was causing considerable stress in their family and marriage, and it so terrified me. There I was, pregnant myself, and I said "Well, I’ve got to be able to use my master’s degree to help myself in some way." So that’s what I did.

I studied, I researched, I talked to people, and I created healthy sleep habits for my first child and got her sleeping through the night really early. Then I helped my brother and his wife, and then I started to help friends who then all had children, as well. I didn’t have my method fine-tuned yet, but I knew enough about child development and behavioral science. My sister-in-law Denise said, "You’ve got to do this as part of your practice."

Even though I know this is not true now, at the time I did not. I said, "You know, I might have just been lucky with the child that I was given. Let me have my next one and I’ll get back to you." I had my next one, who had horrible reflux, who lovingly put me in my place, and continues to even at age 9. My spirited child, I guess. Once I got her reflux under control, and got her sleeping through the night, then I started to get serious about doing this in my practice.

What do you consider to be a healthy sleep habit?
One part of that is teaching our children the skill of putting themselves to sleep. Most people don’t know that it is a learned skill. The second part is teaching parents enough about sleep so that they protect their children’s need for sleep.

On a kind of bigger level, I believe that we, as a country, do not appreciate our own need for sleep. We push the envelope. We do that by over-scheduling ourselves and our children. Push, push, push, and we don’t get enough sleep. I believe we model that to our children.

Sure, and even quality sleep, perhaps….
Absolutely, because it is quality and quantity together. Most parents are shocked to find out how much sleep a child needs. They really need from 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night for the first 10 years of their lives.

Many of us respond to this world with "go, go, go." Perhaps we think of sleep as more of an inconvenience.
Absolutely, and parents will often tell me, "If I do this, then I’ll never get out of the house. If my child has two naps a day, that’s a pain in the neck."

Do you find a lot of resistance from parents to even acknowledge their own culpability, so to speak, in passing on these traits to their children. Is that something parents have to learn to fix, as well?
Yes, they do. You have to understand that with the culpability issue, by the time that parents come to me, they are desperate – and they’ve tried everything. They are at their wits end. They’re exhausted, and maybe they’re irritable. Their child is up maybe five, 10 times a night, not taking any naps. They are barely able to function as a couple, and at their job. So by then, they’re in a different place.

I think that if I would have talked to these parents earlier on, I would have heard more things like, "Well, they’ll probably out grow it, or it’s not really an issue." Even though I offer a class on getting your newborn off to a good sleep start, it is not nearly as filled with pregnant parents as it is with parents of newborns. You don’t perceive it as a problem until it is a problem for you.

That’s why an interview with a non-parent is a lot different than one with a parent, because they just don’t get it. Non-parents are like, "So why is this a problem?" My guess would be that parents who have a problem would come to my talks. Why would they come if they didn’t?

Do you think it is more of a problem in our society than we acknowledge?
Yes, it’s huge. The faster our lives go, the more inundation we have with literature, the internet and TV, and then the more overwhelmed and paralyzed parents are with how to move forward, because it is so conflicting. We also have moved away from our intuition. I have to wonder if it’s because we don’t have a village anymore? I even think about my own mother, who lives only a half hour away from me now. For instance, she did not nurse her children, because it was not the "in" thing to do. She was actually told not to. So she couldn’t help me when I struggled with how to breast feed my first child.

I think it starts there, with such different attitudes about it. Do you "just let your child cry," or is it because you’re nursing them that you’re having a problem? That isolates so many parents, and then they turn to the internet for answers. I’m blown away by how many parents go for parenting advice on the internet.

It mirrors many areas of life, from political to social, where we tend to look somewhere else for advice in how to do it, as opposed to looking for what feels right within.
Absolutely. If I had to figure out what makes success and what doesn’t in the families I work with, the more intuitive parents are more successful. Parents who are in touch with their own issues are insightful and are more present, and therefore, they can more easily lead their children – instead of getting caught up in trying to change their child or thinking, "This isn’t what I thought it would be like." When I ask the question, "What does your gut tell you?" they can answer. But I have a lot of parents who say, "I don’t know. I can’t read my child. I don’t know what to do. The book says this, and my doctor says that."

What do you recommend to new parents to begin to implement or even integrate some of the basic ideas you present into their lives, or into their children’s lives? What is a beginning step?
Not for necessarily increasing their intuition but for changing their child’s sleep habits?

Right, to begin the entire process in teaching their children proper sleep habits.
It really starts with giving them enough information about the science of sleep, and about behavioral science, so that they can combine it with their intuition and their child’s temperament. Then they can problem-solve over time. My job is not to make them dependent on me. I know I’ve done a great job when they call me in a year and say, "My child’s going from two naps to one," or "My child’s going from crib to bed and this is what I’m thinking and this is what I’m seeing and I just want to check in so I don’t go down a bad path too long." That’s when I think I’ve done a great job. They’ve got it.

The next step is to teach the child how to put him or herself to sleep while creating and maintaining a secure attachment. Supporting them, but not doing it for them.

With my children, it seems their hesitancy to go to sleep is more of a fear of missing out on something, or being apart from mommy and daddy.
Right, not because they don’t know how to.

Before you go into a talk, is their any ritual you go through to help you find a balanced state for the talk?
As a therapist, it is very important for me to take care of myself and not get pulled in to the fears or anxiety of those I counsel. Because some of these families are so tired, cranky and irritable, I must take care of myself so that I don’t burn out. I strive to take an objective distance. I often will light a candle in the morning. I have my office set up in a color that I love and that is soothing to me, along with pictures that are inspiring to me. I also try to very much walk the walk, and I don’t hold myself above or in judgment of those I see. I sometimes struggle, too, and feel guilty with my kids, and this sharing of myself is important.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
I’m smiling, actually, when you ask that. I absolutely love what I do. I feel so lucky and fortunate to have this. Maybe this sounds vain, but it is so rewarding to help empower a family, to help change a family’s life, because it drastically changes their life.

If you have a child who doesn’t sleep, and it’s affecting your life and your marriage and your child’s behavior and temperament, and that changes? Your whole life changes, and then you tell everyone about it! People notice that they look more restful, more happy. That is just so rewarding. It is so incredible to receive e-mails and voice mails and thank you notes from people who say I’ve been so much more to them than a sleep coach.

Why did you choose to be a part of the Edge Life Expo?
I know Lynn Young, another one of the speakers here, and through her met Insiah (Beckman), who mentioned that they were looking for other speakers. It was through this connection that I was invited, and accepted.

What is the one thing you hope attendees to your talk at the Expo would walk away with, from their time spent listening to you?
(laughing) Oh, I hate that "one thing" question! Assuming that those who attend are having a sleep problem, it would be that they would realize the importance of sleep and having healthy sleep habits, and most of all that there is a way to teach their child that is gentle and gradual.

Perhaps aligning with something you touched on earlier, in that you have faith in the process, and perhaps instilling this same faith in them that it can improve.
Absolutely, and I know that it can.

What is your favorite color?

Is there any one group, or person, who has been your greatest inspiration in leading you to the work you do?
This has been a path for me. I prefer to think of it as life lessons. We do have a spiritual path, or a spiritual purpose, in this lifetime. I believe I do, and it is to heal and to empower others. I think it was a gradual journey to get there. I wish I had a story that it was one person, or one event, but I think it was a culmination.

I’ve read in many places that that we teach best what we most have to learn, so have you found that by giving such advice and comfort and clarity to other parents that you found it within your own life?
Absolutely. That was beautifully said.

What turns you on spiritually, creatively or emotionally?
Color can inspire me, and laughter, and nature, and my children, and helping someone change their life. All those things jazz me.

For more information on Kim West, visit www.sleeplady.com.

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Doug Crandall
Doug Crandall is a stay-at-home dad living with his family in a suburb of the Twin Cities. Co-founder with Mike Meginn of www.Godflags.com, he is also a published poet and part-time philosopher. Doug worked for The Edge Magazine for six years during the 2000s. He can be contacted at [email protected].


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