WORDS: Miriam Weir
Tara Mitchell is one of Australia’s leading infant and toddler sleep consultants, helping literally thousands of families through one of the toughest experiences parents can go through: sleep exhaustion.
You don’t have to be a parent to know the effects of sleep deprivation on your body either – the negative effect on your mental and physical wellbeing can be felt after just one night of bad sleep. Compound this by weeks, months and sometimes years and you can imagine the state of sheer and utter desperation Tara can sometimes meet clients in.
To say she is in some ways both marriage counsellor and mental health practitioner would not be too much of a stretch either – the stark reality of being a sleep consultant can mean seeing marriages on the brink or mothers in the grips of severe postnatal depression. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted and Tara has had to develop her own brand of strength and resilience to take on the massive responsibility of being the last resort for some parents.
“I think sometimes people love the idea of being a sleep consultant – but the reality is you have to be prepared to feel like the survival of someone’s marriage is in your hands,” Tara says of the job. “It can be incredibly confronting – you definitely have to be mentally fit to literally show up for desperate mums and dads and give it your absolute all….if you fail that client, you have taken away their hope – and that is sometimes all they have left.”
And this is all before we’ve even touched on the impact of sleep – or lack of it – on infants. At its worst, insufficient sleep can inhibit the amount of growth hormone released – and for babies between 0-12, this impacts the biggest growth period of their whole life. Increased cortisol – the stress hormone – is also produced with ongoing sleep deprivation. Cortisol acts like adrenaline – so it’s a hard cycle to break, and why tired babies seem to resist sleep.
It’s a feeling Tara knows all too well, having gone through the harrowing experience of extreme sleep deprivation with her firstborn, Scarlett, back in 2014.
A qualified Paediatric Nurse, Tara has long held an affinity with young children, having worked extensively as a nanny while studying. After 6 years in the field as a Paediatric Nurse, Tara became a mum – envisioning play dates, coffee catch-ups and walks in the park. Reality had other ideas however, with a severe milk intolerance and reflux responsible for little Scarlett enduring several hospital visits due to weight loss, unexplained rashes, UTI’s and diarrhoea. It wasn’t the sunny start to motherhood Tara imagined, and after three months of severe sleep deprivation, things turned as soon as Scarlett’s sleep needs were addressed: she fed better, her weight increased and her tummy settled. As Tara puts it, “our family was thriving, not simply surviving.”
This life-changing experience stayed with Tara and when Scarlett turned six months she trained to become a sleep-consultant and the Gentle Sleep Specialist was born.
The ‘gentle’ part comes from the common misconception that you need to use ‘cry it out’ or ‘extinction’ methods to make changes happen as quickly as possible. “All babies are supported through verbal and physical reassurance as required,” explains Tara. “Though that won’t mean your baby won’t necessarily cry – it is a normal part of the change process for babies to cry, so there may be a few bumps in the road for the first few days. All the methods we use and knowledge we have supports babies to better settle,” she explains. “The best outcome is to create a new feeling of certainty and security but with sustainable and healthy sleep habits.”
Support and consistency are key themes that run through Tara’s methodology. One of the few silver linings to the various state lockdowns means clients have had the ability to commit to the program and break some of the habits we as parents inevitably find ourselves in, such as pram-rocking and long-drives in order to get a baby to sleep.
Tara opens up spaces on her program once a month for babies and bi-monthly for toddlers to ensure “the most personalised and affordable sleep program available.” She also does zoom meetings with mothers groups, and runs regular Q&A’s on her Instagram @thgentlesleepspecialist. Her accessibility and authenticity has made her highly in demand, with clients all over the country and as far Europe and the USA.
With a belief that all children are capable of sleeping well and can develop healthy, sustainable sleep habits, it’s not hard to see where Tara’s success – and her motivation lies. “Getting sleep sorted makes for happier children and stronger families,” she says. “It can be demanding, but ultimately – giving the gift of sleep to families is hugely rewarding.”
Tara’s Top 5 Tips to Troubleshoot Sleep Issues
1. Awake times: Observe general age-appropriate awake times.
2. Sleep pressure: Ensure that when your infant is awake, you keep them stimulated to stay awake so they keep their appetite for the sleep ahead. If your little one gets drowsy or dozes, this may cause a second wind and make settling harder.
3. Sleep associations: If you use external props to help your little one to fall asleep, they may need these to go back to sleep. Allow them to understand that where and how they head off to sleep will be the same when they wake.
4. Structuring feeds (with flexibility): Head towards feed, play, sleep, but don’t be too caught up on set feed times.
5. No nap caps: It’s rare that capping naps or waking babies to be on set schedules works. Sleep promotes sleep!