CHICAGO – From the start, Amy Evanko’s son was a great sleeper. She’d gently place him in his crib, and he’d sail off to sleep.
So it came as a surprise when his younger sister wouldn’t do the same.
“We were like, ‘What, all babies don’t just go to sleep?'” said Evanko, 39. “She was just more difficult and didn’t want to do what we wanted her to do.”
With the end of her maternity leave looming, Evanko knew she needed help.
“It’s one thing when you don’t have to get up and go to work, you can take a nap in the middle of the day,” Evanko said. “But knowing I was going back to work and would need sleep was motivation to get her into a better situation.”
She got help from an unexpected source: her employer. The customer service supervisor used a reimbursement from her company, Eileen Fisher, to hire a sleep consultant to help her daughter —and herself — get some rest.
Within a few weeks of working with the consultant, Evanko’s infant daughter went from waking every couple of hours, wanting to be nursed or held, to sleeping for six-hour stretches.
In recent years, as the labor market has improved and competition for workers has increased, many employers have broadened their benefits, offering everything from stocked kitchens and pet-friendly workplaces to longer maternity leaves. Now, some companies are paying for sleep consultants for parents, with the idea that a well-rested household is a win for workers and their employers.
Generations of parents have slogged through sleepless nights, seeking advice from their pediatricians. But many modern moms and dads, overwhelmed by well-meaning but contradictory advice from friends, social media and books, have turned to sleep consultants. The consultants talk with parents to understand their unique challenges and offer tips for improving babies’ sleep environments. They also come up with step-by-step plans for parents that address questions such as when to put babies to bed, how long to let them cry at night and how to respond to that crying
Sleep consultants can cost anywhere from $200 for advice before a baby is born to thousands of dollars for multiple nights of live-in help. Many consultants charge $400 to $500 for a consultation followed by several weeks of support.
The fees are financially out of reach for some, but a growing number of employers are happy to foot the bill, offering reimbursements, lunch-time seminars or even one-on-one help for workers.
There’s a reason why employers are stepping up. Productivity losses due to fatigue and poor sleep can cost employers $1,967 per employee per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chicago-based PowerReviews began working with local sleep consultant Susie Parker a few years ago, allowing employees to get Parker’s help for three weeks any time during their children’s first year. PowerReviews, which helps brands collect, amplify and analyze user-generated feedback, has about 175 employees.
“We just thought sleep was so important, not only to the child but the parent,” said Kira Meinzer, the company’s former chief people officer, who implemented the program. “It’s going to make everyone happier and make the employee more productive.”
She came up with the idea after her own experiences with her twin boys several years ago.
As babies, they often woke three times a night â each.
“We just couldn’t function,” Meinzer said. “I don’t think people recognize the effect it has not only on your daily life but your work life. You can’t think straight.”
She and her husband hired Parker when their boys were about six months old. Parker talked with the family, came up with a plan and checked on their progress as they implemented it. Within a few weeks, the boys began sleeping though the night.
“It was unreal the work she was able to do with them,” Meinzer said.
Meinzer called the costs of Parker’s help “miniscule when you think about the lost productivity of a high-level employee.”
Parker said she’s worked with a few companies since she started her sleep consulting business, Sleep Baby Love, Child Sleep Consulting, in 2014, though she mostly works with individuals.
Sleep consultants aren’t regulated as an industry, and anyone can call him or herself a sleep consultant, though some, such as Parker, go through training programs.
Parker decided to become a sleep consultant after “several bad months” trying to get her youngest daughter to sleep, during which she became “sleep obsessed.” Once she figured out how to teach her daughter to go to sleep on her own, it changed her life, and she thought she could do the same for others.
“The parents that come to me, they’re at a point of not only desperation but they’re confused and overwhelmed about what to do,” Parker said. And employers see it as a “return on investment that makes sense because my employee is going to come back more productive and energized.”
Several other Chicago-area sleep consultants say they’ve done seminars and workshops at tech companies and law firms, giving employees tips and fielding questions.
“They see that their employees are tired and struggling and they see that they aren’t able to put in their best work when they’re so exhausted,” said Linda Szmulewitz, who has a Chicago-based business, Sleep Tight Consultants.
It’s part of a broader trend of employers increasingly trying to support working moms, said Jill Micklow, wellness manager for Assurance, a Schaumburg-based insurance brokerage that helps employers with their employee benefit packages and wellness programs.
“We’re getting tons of requests around how can we support our working parents, making sure moms are coming back, and coming back mentally well, and able to do their jobs,” Micklow said.
Assurance recently started connecting some of its clients with a company called Maven, which offers a range of assistance for families, from counseling about fertility to access to doulas, midwives and doctors and, for bleary-eyed parents, sleep coaches. Employees who use the program can work with the coaches to create personalized plans for their kids.
In addition to offering Maven to client companies, including some in Illinois, Assurance has also adopted the program for its own employees, Micklow said. The company has over 500 employees and more than a dozen pregnancies a year, she said.
“You imagine how you perform on three hours of sleep versus eight hours of sleep,” Micklow said. When their children are sleeping, employees are “happier, they work well with others, they’re more productive and make less errors. They really can just perform more in line with their best selves.”
Micklow, in particular, knows how important sleep can be after struggling with getting her own tykes, now 4 and 1, to bed. She remembers the difficulty of wading through different methods, trying to find the best approach.
She remembers feeling short on energy and patience during those days.
“I wish I had a sleep coach to kind of walk me through it and give me some practical advice,” Micklow said. “Once your child is sleeping through the night, it’s amazing. I just remember thinking, ‘How did I function before without this?'”
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