By 5:41am I can already tell it’s going to be a bad day, mostly because my twins have taken turns waking me up every 20 minutes since 3:17am. I alternate between the two babies until 5am when I’m able to get almost a whole half hour of rest before they wake again. I feel like a dying neon sign: flickering and buzzing and attempting to function properly. I can’t focus. I’m short-tempered. I cry at least twice before lunch. There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique.
Not every night is as hard as that one was. In general, we’ve reached an uneasy truce in my household when it comes to the kids' naps and bedtimes. We more or less stick to a schedule, and they generally don’t take more than 15 minutes to fall asleep at night. But, they don’t always stay asleep, their naps are probably shorter than they should be, and I know I’m getting them into some bad habits by cuddling and rocking them back to sleep. We could be doing better, and since I didn’t know where to start I decided to sign up for the Dream Lab sleep coaching system.
Dream Lab is affiliated with Owlet, the company that makes the Smart Sock which monitors a baby’s heart rate and respirations during sleep. The Dream Lab system was developed by two pediatric sleep consultants, Jill Spivack and Jen Waldburger, who have helped over 500,000 families establish healthy sleep patterns with their children. The service is Owlet’s only software product, and while you can purchase a code to unlock it for $100 from several different places, the program itself is only available via the Owlet website. It consists of assessments and questionnaires to see where your child is having sleep difficulties, plus instructional videos and three different training options to use with your child. It’s not a “cry it out” type of program, but does point out that a few tears during the process are likely unavoidable.
What is sleep training?
For those who are unfamiliar, sleep training is the general concept of teaching a baby to fall asleep on their own without intervention from a parent or caretaker. That means no rocking, cuddling, walking, swinging, nursing or feeding. This not only teaches a child how to soothe themselves, but it also helps them learn how to fall back asleep when they wake in the middle of the night.
There are dozens of schools of thought on this — new parents will likely hear the phrase “let them cry it out” more than once — but they’re all basically centered around getting a baby to sleep consistently and soundly through the night. These techniques are sometimes combined with sleep weaning, which is moving your child away from waking at night to eat. Either way, the goal is for everyone to be getting more sleep.
The Dream Lab process in action
The first step of the Dream Lab process is to assess your child's health and sleep habits. This consists of nine questions, including things like “Is your child currently cutting a tooth through the gum?” and “How are you feeding your child?” When I enter in the answers for my daughter, who is both teething and close to walking on her own, I’m told that this may not be the right time to start a sleep training program since she is both irritable about the tooth and excited about her new skills. Fair enough.
Although this is disappointing, as she’s the one who requires the most help, it’s also entirely understandable and gives me some trust in the process. It makes sense that a child who is suffering from intermittent pain, or who is developing new skills, would struggle with sleep training. Dream Lab allows users of the program to come back once circumstances are more conducive to success.
Since I have twins, I instead took an assessment for my son, who qualified. The next page showed a video to help me understand when to start the sleep training process. After that, I answered another questionnaire for the “Sleep Stealer” section, which consisted of an additional nine questions about my kid’s sleep habits, from what he wears to sleep and what’s in his crib, to the temperature and darkness level of the room. The next step was to answer another set of questions to determine which method (Visit, Stay or Touch) would be the best fit. I wind up matching with the Stay method, which is the one I would have chosen regardless.
The results of the Sleep Stealer questionnaire are broken down into 17 suggested actions across five categories (e.g., Sleep Environment, Routines and Sleep Schedule). Some of the suggestions were for things I already do, like creating a consistent wind-down routine ahead of bed time. Some of the other suggestions are straightforward enough, like leaving the white noise machine on throughout the night or keeping the room warmer. Others — say, putting my son in a room alone while he’s sleep training — aren’t practical or would be difficult to accomplish. The only other room in our house where his crib could go has a broken window and gets way too cold, so I left that to-do undone.
Despite not marking all the items as complete, the site still lets me progress to the next step: a series of coaching videos that gives step-by-step instructions on how to start with the Stay method. There are additional videos covering topics like naps or separation anxiety, and each one has a summary you can click on for more information. After I watched the videos I was taken to my son’s Sleep Plan, which detailed a daily schedule of when to start a wind-down routine, nap times and a schedule to wean him off of night feeds. The plan includes a page for each day, and places for me to enter in details as I go on what time he was put in his crib, how long it took him to fall asleep, etc. Each day’s briefing also includes a video from the trainers to help motivate me to keep going.
Does sleep training work?
If I were grading my kids on their progress in the Dream Lab program, I’d give them an A-. They’re older than most babies who start sleep training so they took quickly to a lot of the techniques. And after a few days , they went to sleep faster, with less intervention from me, and stayed asleep longer. They also were easier to put back to sleep when they woke up in the middle of the night.
However, if I were grading myself on how well I did on the program, I’d get a D at best. I can’t lie here, I did not follow the program to the letter — and the Dream Lab coaches are very specific about how important it is to fully comply with the recommendations. Some of the places where I failed were the Sleep Stealer suggestions. Honestly, I don’t really have a good place to isolate a child who is sleep training so my son stayed where he normally slept: in the crib by my bed, in the same room as his sister.
Of the 17 action items in the Sleep Stealer section, I ignored three. But I also didn’t follow all of the step-by-step instructions for the Stay method either. In order to sleep train with as few tears as possible, the method calls for me to stay in the room while the babies cry and check in with them intermittently — but not to touch them, rock them or otherwise assist. I failed there. I adjusted the method somewhat, so that my check-ins included placing them on their backs in their cribs, giving them a pacifier and tucking them in with a blanket (another thing which is not allowed in the program).
While this is not at all what I was supposed to do, I tried to keep my interactions to a minimum, and it generally worked. I also reverted to briefly holding them at night when they woke up, before putting them back down. Again, this still worked most of the time and was an improvement from the nights where I spent hours walking across the room holding them. As far as I can tell, we’re still making progress — albeit more slowly than we might have had we strictly adhered to the program.
While the Dream Lab system is intended to make sure that you’re as ready for the sleep training as your child is, with plenty of energy and time to dedicate to establishing a routine and sticking to the plan, I found it difficult to be that precise with it. Not only because I have twins, but because I work a full-time job from home, during a pandemic, in a rather remote location. My days are pure chaos, and something like a Sunday afternoon drive or a migraine do a stellar job of derailing the sort of strict routine that Dream Lab requires.
There are a million different sleep coaching systems and YouTube videos and Instagram influencers who will offer advice on how to get your child to sleep better. Having never tried a sleep training program before, and having scant time to do intensive research, I would be totally willing to pay the $100 entry fee to receive some direction. It helped that the system asks specific questions ensuring the program is tailored to my children’s needs.
That being said, I had a few quibbles about the overall process. First, I wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed exactly given that I have twins. There’s a section on the Help Center page about multiples, but it didn’t answer all of my questions and I didn’t really want to wait one or two days for a reply from the web form. For example, what if my son and daughter matched with different methods? I had other questions too: Does weaning from night time feeds include the 9pm one as well as the midnight? This is maybe the one time I really would have liked to see a chat box for more immediate replies.
Also, on more than one occasion I wished that the program was available as part of Owlet’s existing app. Because it is only available as a web page, I had to catch up on my entries for each day’s activity — particularly over the weekend, when I rarely open my computer. I also had to refresh the page often as it had timed out, and on at least one occasion, I had to log in again. It’s not the biggest issue, obviously, but given that Owlet’s other products can all be grouped in the app, it would have been nice to have this one there too.
As to whether or not you should try Dream Lab’s sleep system, I’ll tell you that like a lot of coaching programs, you’re only going to get out of it what you put in. But I’m not disappointed by the experience, and I’m going to continue to use it with my twins because I’ve seen really positive results. Having my children fall asleep easier, and stay asleep longer, has been well worth the price of the program already. I’m just going to adjust their time table to one that’s a bit more achievable for my house hold right now.