At some point, the title "coach" came with a whistle, breakaway pants and nostril-flaring stake in badminton. These days, we can hire coaches for nearly anything: diet, sex, living, being ourselves, getting over ourselves — you name it, someone will claim they can revolutionize it. Sleep is no exception. Why consult a doctor or therapist when someone with a passion for snoozing and a Wordpress account promises REM restoration, free of mettlesome insurance companies?
Good question. A "sleep coach" sounds like yet another yes-man on the payroll of someone with more money than properly firing neural synapses. While many are just that, some are legitimate, licensed and, well, useful professionals. Like a nutritionist, a sleep coach should help you understand rest in the context of your lifestyle choices and medical history. They can't prescribe medication, but they can help you overhaul your nocturnal life based on evidence from science, alternative therapies and, most likely, a lot of common sense.
Still, anyone willing to find a sleep coach in the wild wild west of the wellness industry needs to study up and get skeptical. A fraudulent closet-organization coach might drain your bank account, but poor, scant and inconsistent ZZZs are associated with too many, too real health risks, including cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, cognitive decline, shortened lifespan and suicide. Don't let a Craigslist kook screw with your sleep cycle. Before you expand your employ, consider these points.
1. Be Skeptical
Finding a sleep coach demands patience and a constantly arched eyebrow, because plenty are duds. The Journal of Pediatrics recently reported that less than half of self-proclaimed “sleep coaches” had prior experience in healthcare or education. For starters, anyone can call themselves a sleep coach, which means nothing more than "someonep aid to help improve nightly rest." Experts in the sleep field take issue with the vague and loose criteria for dispensing advice. “As of right now there’s not really a designated certifying program," said so it’s very hard to know people's qualifications when they call themselves a sleep coach,” said Shalini Paruthi, director of the Pediatric Sleep and Research Center at Saint Louis University and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).
2. Read Between the Letters
The title "sleep coach" doesn't necessarily mean anything. But, don't assume the opposite other: Certified professionals do still use the term. (Give it up for SEO.) At the very least, look for someone with evidence-backed results and client references. Preferably, they'll have relevant credentials, too, but make sure to read between the letters.
3. Understand that Sleep Coaches Aren't Doctors
The lion's share of sleep coaches are not doctors — but some are still worth hiring. Our healthcare system depends on a large and varied web of support staff and non-MD service providers. Just try surviving a hospital stay without nurses, nurse practitioners and orderlies.
Amy Korn-Reavis, aka the better sleep coach, is a qualified respiratory therapist who began working in a sleep lab in 1999. As a coach, Korn-Reavis typically spends four to six weeks working with a client to improve their sleep. “It’s not designed to be long-term therapy,” says Korn-Reavis, who primarily consults over the phone at a rate of $125 -per-hour, with email and text correspondence at no additional fee.
Before coaching begins, Korn-Reavis identifies clients' problems and treatment goals. Her advice usually takes the form of adjusting behavioral routines before bed, from electronics usage to breathing and yoga stretches. Her practical, goal-oriented approach jibes with the concrete techqniques used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an increasingly popular and research-backed therapeutic method.
Additionally, Korn-Reavis shares the studies she uses as resources and offers advice for improving a client’s sleep environments.
5. When in Doubt, Buyer Beware
Some programs, however, are little more than pay-to-practice nonsense. Case in point: This $6,000 15-month sleep coaching course.
“It’s a case of buyer's beware,” says Korn-Reavis. “I know people who teach new moms how to help their children sleep. I won’t do that kind of coaching because I think it’s unethical. I don’t think every child is the same and, while I tell parents to set bedtime limits, I never tell them how to get their child to sleep. My intention is to help people, because if I help people sleep better they have a better quality of life.”
6. Real Professionals Know Your Limits
That is, if they feel as though they're unable to provide the help you need. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach; each individual is different,” says Korn-Reavis, of her client-tailored program. “If it’s not working after six weeks, they either need to be looking at what medications they’re on, or go see a doctor because it’s something beyond what I’d be able to help them with.”
Behavioral modifications aside, Paruthi believes sleep coaches need to draw the line when it comes to more serious medical conditions, such as sleep apnea. Korn-Reavis is on the same page. She insists clients complete initial questionnaires and undergo screenings sleep disorders and other issues that require M.D. care.
7. Some Doctors Will Never Be On Board with Sleep Coaches
For Paruthi, the market for sleep coaches reflects the need for better public awareness around sleep, rather than an alternative route to health and wellness. "Healthcare providers — medical students and doctors alike — need more and better sleep education."
And, she has a point. Some experts say sleep health belongs in primary care. Generalists should pay more attention to sleep during routine-care visits, zero in on vulnerable patients and, perhaps most centrally, treat symptoms and conditions, such as obesity and depression, which are linked to common sleep disorders including sleep apnea and insomnia.