Kiwi parents are increasingly turning to baby whisperers in a bid to gain respite from sleepless, crying little ones.

But as the sleep consultancy industry grows, so too does concern about the conflicting advice and use of controversial "cry it out" methods, with paediatric experts pushing for greater regulation of the industry and research into the risk some advice poses.

Researcher at Otago University's Department of Women's and Children's Health; paediatric section, Rachel Sayers said baby whisperers were a "consumer beware" market.

"I think regulation of this industry would be beneficial to ensure that people providing such a service had, at the very least, training and experience around child health and sleep.


"Parents of a baby with sleep difficulties are a vulnerable group. They are usually sleep deprived, have varying degrees of social support; are adjusting to large life changes and are often looking for a 'magical or quick fix'."

Sayers said research could provide evidence for greater regulation that could protect the vulnerable population from untrained baby-whisperers.

Neonatal nurses Amy Sherpa and Elspeth Witton, who run Baby Sleep Practitioners, said they'd met mothers who'd been given conflicting and at times dangerous advice on how to settle a crying baby.

"Poor advice can make mothers extremely anxious, then they become upset that they cannot get their babies to sleep even though they think they have been given the right advice," Sherpa said.

Amy Sherpa and Elspeth Witton with Patrick Witton. Amy and Elspeth run The Baby Sleep Practitioners. Photo / Michael Craig
Amy Sherpa and Elspeth Witton with Patrick Witton. Amy and Elspeth run The Baby Sleep Practitioners. Photo / Michael Craig

The nurses hoped to undertake some academic research soon to quantify their concerns and provide evidence to support their calls for greater regulation of baby whisperers..

They claimed at worst misinformed advice could put mums at risk of postnatal depression and lead to babies' conditions going undiagnosed.

Witton said strict feeding regimes, or cry-it-out techniques went against a mother's natural instinct and could cause real damage, including confusion, exhaustion, guilt, anxiety and self-blame.

She said babies not sleeping could be due to other medical issues such as tongue-ties, reflux and an irregular heart beat - all of which could go undetected if a practitioner didn't know the key signs.

"In reality every baby has its own genetic make-up which determines how much sleep it needs and when it gets tired."

One Auckland couple, who didn't want to be identified, said their baby whisperer experience left them never wanting to use one again.

They'd turned to one in desperation after five sleepless months left them feeling "ferociously tired".

"Our son was waking at night, every 20-45 minutes to breastfeed and napping only on me during the day," the mum said. "Honestly it's hard to describe, two years later it remains our lowest ebb."

They were given "all versions of cry it out".

"In short our son ended up screaming himself to sleep - every sleep, which means maybe four or five times a day - for a week. One day I added up seven hours of crying."

After seeing "zero" progress they went back to breastfeeding to sleep and did their own research.

"We felt sick and angry to find that it [cry-it-out] is generally thought not to work with babies younger than six months, and to be more harmful."

Instead the couple vouched for the staff at PlunketLine.

"They have got us through all of the sleep rollercoasters of the first two years, with seemingly infinite patience and compassion for us and the baby."

Sherpa and Witton said greater regulation that would see standardised education and certification of baby-whisperers would help give parents realistic expectations and reduce stress.

Ministry of Health chief advisor Child and Youth Health, Dr Pat Tuohy, said there were a number of no-cost services already available.

He advised those looking for alternate options to check the consultants' credentials carefully and if possible use a registered health-professional.

However, Baby Sleep Consultant New Zealand founder Emma Purdue said though there was some conflicting advice around, she didn't think the industry should be closed to health professionals alone.

"It would just price out the availability of sleep consultants; then it could mean your average parent couldn't afford a sleep consultant."

She wasn't convinced regulation was the answer, but said it was important for sleep consultants to keep up to date with the latest science and World Health Organisation guidelines - and to know when appropriate medical help was needed.

"I think the definition of a good consultant is we don't go in there guns blazing with a plan, it's more what do you need to do in this scenario that will help you."

On Friday, the Ministry of Health released new healthy weight guidelines which reinforced the need for children to get quality daily sleep.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said up to one in three toddlers weren't getting enough sleep, something which could contribute to weight problems including obesity.

The new guidelines recommended 14-17 hours sleep a day for newborns, 12-15 hours for infants aged four to 11 months, and 11-14 hours for toddlers aged up to two.

Pre-schoolers should get 10-13 hours sleep a day, the guidelines said.


At first Emma Clarke had a dream run with her baby son, who quickly settled into a good routine.

But when the 33-year-old Auckland mother struggled to move Dylan into a bigger cot when he was seven months old, she decided to seek help from a sleep consultant.

"It got to the point where I was so desperate, he was so over-tired and the only way to get him to sleep was to put him in the pram and rock him to sleep," she said. "It became my life for about two months."

"It was mentally challenging and draining and I used to say; 'oh my god this is driving me crazy."

It was at this point Clarke approached Baby Sleep Consultant New Zealand.

She said the service provided her with a well-involved approach, over an extended period of time, to help get Dylan back into a good routine.

"They assessed many areas, including sleep environment, food intake and providing a new schedule based on a parenting style I was comfortable with.

"It was so helpful having the same person who knew what I'd tried and could tweak things as we had to."