Sleepless nights and distressed babies are a common theme in the parenting journey. But what if we told you, it’s possible to teach your child to sleep independently without causing them distress? Welcome to an insightful episode of Leadership Parenting where we share our wisdom on tackling sleep training in an empathetic, effective way. I’ll be sharing my personal insights on managing the emotional rollercoaster of transitioning your child to independent sleep. We’ll be addressing the crying and protesting that inevitably accompanies sleep training – but we’ll also talk about how resilience can empower you to face these challenges with confidence and even joy. The issue of sleep training isn’t just about sleep – it’s also about maintaining that special attachment with your child. Sleep training methods are myriad and varied, and it’s important to choose one that fits your child’s developmental stage and your family’s unique circumstances. We’ll discuss the popular check and console method, which is all about setting loving boundaries while simultaneously providing comfort. Join us on this journey as we learn to navigate the tricky terrain of sleep training with compassion, understanding, and a healthy dose of leadership.
What you will learn on this episode:
– The complexities of sleep training and how it goes beyond just sleep to include maintaining a healthy attachment with your child.
– The need to tailor sleep training according to your child’s developmental stage and your family’s unique circumstances.
– The check and console method of sleep training, which combines setting boundaries with providing comfort.
– The importance of developing a clear philosophy about crying, establishing a reliable sleep pattern, and creating a nurturing bedtime routine.
– The requirement for patience, flexibility, and a strong support system
– Tips for managing the crying and protesting that inevitably comes with sleep training.
I absolutely love to hear your thoughts and get your questions.
You can email me at: Leighagermann@gmail.com
I can’t wait to hear from you!
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Welcome to Leadership Parenting.
Today we have another question and answer episode, and here is the question that I received what do you think about letting babies and toddlers cry? I’m a mom of two kids, ages eight months and three years old, who both have trouble sleeping at night. They both want to be held until they fall asleep or sleep in bed with us, which means none of us get any sleep. I’ve been working off and on with my toddler and it’s getting a little bit better. But my biggest struggle is with my eight-month-old and having her up through the night. My husband and I are exhausted. I spend two to three hours up and down throughout the night every night. I want to train her to sleep on her own, but I’m afraid letting her cry will hurt her. What do you think about sleep training and letting babies cry? Signed a tired mom. Thank you so much for this question. Tired mom, you are not alone. There are a lot of us tired moms out there.
I get this question in several different formats, probably almost weekly. Sometimes the questions are not about sleep. They’re about helping our children do something else that’s new, that’s difficult, that’s challenging, that’s uncomfortable for them and hard for them. But there really is kind of a special category for helping kids learn how to sleep on their own and all of that kind of ugh. It’s just so hard when our children are crying and protesting from our efforts to try to help them put a little boundary or a little kind of structure to their sleep. So before I even begin, I want to just acknowledge that there are many, many ways to handle sleep with our children, just like almost any parenting task we have, there are going to be more than one way to do it. It’s going to be hard for me to give the perfect answer for every situation, and maybe I should say that differently there isn’t a perfect answer for every situation. Even if you found one like it was perfect for you, you could surely count on the fact that things are going to change somewhere somehow and you will have to adjust and adapt, because what works for one of your kids might not be the best approach for your other children.
I really struggled with this one when I was raising children and, to be totally honest, I went back and forth on sleep training, co-sleeping and all the in-betweens. Some of my kids had needs that required they be fed more often. I had situations that occurred where I needed more support or sleep at different intervals of time, and one of my babies had a health condition that required a whole other level of care. So you’re going to have your own situations as well. For me, I got up through the night. I brought babies and toddlers in bed with us, and in later years, when my kids got older and had problems waking up in the middle of the night, I even made this little pallet and put it by the bed. It would kind of be tucked under the bed so that when I had children who felt insecure or frightened, they would kind of just come in and let me know and I’d say, let’s just pull out the little pallet, and I’d often have a child sleeping on the floor right next to me in the middle of the night. Sometimes I ended up there on the floor with them too. So I just was all over the map trying to problem solve and troubleshoot sleep issues with all of our different circumstances. I also chose at times to help my children learn to fall asleep alone or in their crib or bed, and when we do this it’s called sleep training.
So as we talk about sleep training, I hope you can see it as just one of your options. If you’re co-sleeping and it’s working for you, then you probably don’t have to change anything. If you’re managing occasional night wakings, then you are probably doing great and won’t need to make any changes either. And if you and your child are not sleeping well, then you may be looking for ideas to have night times be a little more structured and you may be considering something formal like a sleep training approach. So our mom’s question about sleep training is focused on a baby’s crying or a protest right when a mom or dad is refusing to pick them up or rock them to sleep or do whatever it is that usually happens to get them to sleep in a parent-assisted way.
And sleep training, kind of more clearly described, means that we’re helping children fall asleep and stay asleep independent of us. So rather than parent-assisted sleep, it is independent sleep. This is not how children come. They come needing parental assistance. So it makes sense that this is kind of a formal decision that we make.
It’s a hard task a lot of times that we’re changing how we’re interacting with our children and I think it’s all part of that graduated independence that children are learning. But when you have a child that is not wanting on their own to go to independent sleep and they’re wanting parent-assisted sleep and we are refusing that, right we’re actually we’re going to adjust that so that it gives them more of an opportunity to be independent. What we’re really going to see when that happens is their feelings about that and that’s going to show up in crying and that crying is upsetting. It worries us and this is the core challenge to sleep issues with our babies, because when babies cry, we instinctively want to respond. It’s wired into our brains, and for good reason. It protects the attachment we have with them. For this reason I had the philosophy of responding quickly to my babies when they cried in the day and through the night, and I think that this is a philosophy that is developmentally required when we have newborns.
There just is no question there is not research anywhere, it does not exist that you should let a newborn cry and not respond to them. We have tons and tons of research that says exactly the opposite. So let’s just start out right now. We’ll talk more about that a little bit in a little bit, but let’s just start out right now. We are not talking about sleep training or trying to help newborns do anything independently. All of it is going to be parent assisted, and I never really tried to sleep train until I personally hit the point of pure exhaustion and started to having that kind of awful resentful feeling rise up within me.
For me, I love my kids so much. I’m sure you have that feeling where you just adore them. But when you start to wake up and have that little resentful feeling like, oh, I’m not getting what I need and that just feels that’s so foreign and we can go back into our values and recognize that that’s not a sign that you’re a bad parent. That’s a sign that you’re needing some things, that it’s been a long time since you’ve had them like sleep, like restful, kind of contiguous sleep that has been interrupted because of your child’s sleep schedule. When that happened it was my signal, a cue that I needed help, whether that was more support from my family so that I got sleep, because if it wasn’t time yet for us to sleep train, then I needed more support because I was running on fumes. But when it was time, that was my cue to help the baby learn to sleep through the night on their own. But it presented a dilemma because I know I didn’t want to ignore cries from my child. I didn’t want to do anything that I felt harmed their sense of attachment. And this is the key concern I get from parents around sleep training.
What we know about children is that they need to feel securely attached to their caregivers. It’s so important that babies from the very beginning get responded to fed, rocked, soothed and really their cries are answered, and the goal of sleep training is to try to graduate our child’s sleep skills and I’m going to say slowly rather than rapidly because that’s just my preference, but we’ll talk about that in a second but we’re trying to graduate our children’s sleep skills to the point of being able to get through a night on their own. How do you teach that skill to a baby or a toddler, particularly without language? This is the challenge of sleep training and some babies do it very naturally on their own and some need more assistance and patience and time to learn that independent sleeping skill. Most physicians and researchers agree that before four months a baby is not likely to go for a full night on their own for many reasons. They need to be fed, definitely, but I also believe it’s because of the need they have to be responded to, because with our newborns it’s critical that we respond to their cries. I know I’ve said this three times already, but it’s just so important that we don’t miss this developmental stage of connection and attachment.
The first three to four months with an infant I like to think about as the fourth trimester. Just pretend your infant is still in your womb. Of course she’s not, she’s outside of your womb. But if you can think about this time as more neurological development, brain development that is occurring in this baby, relying upon your attachment, your connection, your responding to her. It will really help. You see the vision of secure attachment that baby brain is developing. It’s learning about the world through touch, being held. Talk to fed responded to.
So sleep training in the early months is not workable. Now there are some strategies out there that help you get your baby on a modified daytime nighttime schedule or start some habits that will help them with independent sleep, like letting them kind of fall asleep on their own by laying them down while they’re awake or soothing them with your voice before you pick them up. But none of those strategies should allow for letting them cry or delaying your response. So those first months, maybe first half of a year, our sleep is going to be tied to their little schedules. So early months we’re tired. And can’t you hear that in this mom’s question? She’s been doing this. She’s been on her child’s sleep schedule for anywhere between eight months and three years I think is her oldest. She’s tired and man, do I relate to that feeling when we get to that place of exhaustion and desperation and our baby is past that fourth trimester, hopefully more able to learn the skill of independent sleeping.
I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do to sleep train and we use that phrase sleep train but I think it’s better to kind of, at least once in a while we can use that as a shortcut, but at least once in a while look at it as sleep skill development, because what we’re doing is helping a child learn a new way to do something and hopefully to learn it without injuring their sense of safety and attachment to us. This is the thing that parents intuitively are protecting when they struggle with hearing their child cry. Crying is a signal for us to come to our child and in sleep training we are trying to have the child, not need us to come to them. That’s the struggle. So there’s been some research on the effects of sleep training on children’s well-being and the research is divided depending on the era of the study, the method used to sleep train and the way the studies were kind of processed and conducted and processed. And you can find studies that say sleep training has negative effects on your child’s stress level and long-term attachment and there have been many studies saying that sleep training has no negative effect on a child’s short or long-term attachment and it could be hard to navigate all this information.
Depending on which expert, which doctor, which book you’ve read, you can walk away with a different story about the effects of sleep training and add to that your own parents and friends’ opinions. It can be very confusing, and I felt that when I was dealing with exhaustion both my exhaustion and my baby’s exhaustion I pulled my family and friends and I got all sorts of different advice. I read books with different methods and finally I kind of cobbled together my own approach and then tweaked it for every child. So I don’t know that I could teach it in some formulaic way, because every family is going to have their own special circumstances. But what I can do is give you a few things to think about that might help you as you consider what would work best for your family’s needs, like a kind of framework to think of, so you can plug all the different situations into that and adjust and then adjust and then adjust again. So ultimately, what we’re talking about is something we’ve talked about many times on these episodes.
I think it’s important to be mother-centered. Remember what that means to be mother-centered. This means taking reasonable responsibility for your own self-care, so then you can be child-focused and prioritize the needs of your child. So one of our responsibilities is to help our child get the sleep that they need, and the other responsibility around sleep training is to fulfill their attachment needs, to make sure that they feel like they’re not being abandoned by us, that we’re there and we’re helping them. So this means you need a good plan for how to handle that crying or those protests that children have while they’re learning a new skill, and that plan needs to protect their attachment needs so they feel connected and secure, knowing that you’re going to be there to respond when they cry. Okay, that’s our responsibility to be child-focused, and we can apply this to all the skills our children are learning as they grow, when they go to school and have to leave us, when they try a new sport or stay alone at a friend’s birthday party.
The roots of a lot of the anxiety issues our kids experience come from the same foundational issue that our children have to figure out how to do things on their own, bit by bit, and for some kids this is super easy and for others it is so, so hard, and one reason why sleep separation and independent sleep is particularly hard is that it’s one of the very first times our babies are experiencing this and they don’t have the language to tell us how they feel or what they’re thinking. And they don’t understand our language, even if we try to tell them what we’re doing and explain what the goal is. So attachment is the name of the game and the key to handling this issue. Attachment is the foundation you’re building in these early years and for a baby who can do nothing else but cry to communicate. We must answer those cries all of the time. This creates a strong attachment bond. Those cries and your response to those cries are the vehicle that creates secure attachment. And is it possible to help a baby learn to sleep on their own without hurting their attachment? And I believe yes, it is very, very possible.
When you look at the research, the conflicting studies that say sleep training is fine or sleep training is damaging, I think the core issue is whether a child feels like they are safe, responded to and not abandoned as they learn to sleep through the night. Attachment. This is our task as a parent, for every new skill our child will be learning, how do we help them work through the discomfort of doing something new, something hard, something uncomfortable, something on their own. How do we support them in these independent skills without doing it for them? Big challenge in parenting. So here are a few things to consider as we tackle the specific challenge of sleep training your children, while holding attachment as our priority.
Number one make sure when you start to sleep train that your child is developmentally ready. You want to have a plan based upon age and developmental needs and knowing what’s normal for an infant or toddler at every stage so you know how to respond. This research focuses on helping infants over six months old learn to settle and soothe themselves back to sleep Earlier than six. It’s thought to be too soon to expect them to do this well on their own. Now you might find that you have a child ready earlier than that, but I like to advise parents to wait at least until around month five before they try to formally sleep train their babies. That’s just my general rule of thumb. Get the focus kind of on limping along before that so you can get some support trade off to get your core hours of sleep and keep your baby a little more time developmentally to be ready to try to solo sleep.
Number two you need a philosophical stance on what you believe about crying? Because when babies are learning to sleep in a different way not getting held or fed or rocked to sleep, something like that they’re probably going to feel uncomfortable and struggle, and one of the ways they’re going to communicate that is with crying. The biggest pain point I hear from moms and dads when their little one is not sleeping is that distress when they hear their child’s cries. It’s heart wrenching and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s supposed to be that way because we’re not supposed to be calloused or unaffected by our children’s cries. But I also think it’s helpful to understand that crying is communication. Crying is telling you that this is hard and they don’t like it, and you always want to respond to that communication.
I tried to understand my child’s crying during sleep training as being afraid of doing it alone, unsure of how to do it, even maybe angry at having to try to do it on their own. Those are all emotions. Even nonverbal crying is an emotion for a child. You want to allow them to have those emotions and you also want to hold your belief that they can learn to sleep on their own. And when it comes to choosing a method of sleep training, I really think you’re going to want to make sure that the method you choose includes you somehow going in on a regular basis to respond to your child and soothing them, even if it’s for a short time, so that they’re clear that you’re still here, that you’re not leaving them and that you will continue to be there as they’re learning how to do something new.
Number three get clear on what your goal is. Sleep training is better worded as helping kids learn the skill of sleeping and soothing on their own. So this becomes your goal, not necessarily getting you all sleeping through the night as quickly as you can, and when you’re in desperate sorts you are exhausted. The goal could be I just got to do this so we can all get back to sleep. When you sleep train, you are actually going to get less sleep because you’re staying with a child who’s struggling to learn a new skill. You’re not going to sleep until they learn the new skill, and setting this expectation can help you stay calm and not get worried that it isn’t happening fast enough. Number four you need a plan Before we even think about sleep training.
It’s important to develop a reliable and a repeatable schedule to help your child have the building blocks in place to sleep on their own. Too often I work with mamas who don’t really have their baby on a schedule and they hit a point where they want the baby to be able to sleep on a regular pattern and they haven’t established a daytime schedule nor a bedtime routine and then they try to sleep train and it’s just too much. It’s just way, way, way too much for a baby to take in. So I really like the idea of setting the foundation, setting your child and you up for success. You want to get them on a regular schedule, make sure they have enough waking hours during the day in which they’re active and a lot of stimulation and a lot of connection with you. So you’re front loading their attachment and connection needs in this way. Too many times we’re separated from our children during the day and then we try to separate from them at night and you’re going to have a child protest this. This is protective for them. So we want to be able to see if that’s happening and if that’s happening, you might have to delay your sleep training, because if your child needs connection and attachment with you and the only time they can get it is in the evening hours or the night hours when you’re not at work or you’re not caring for someone else. If you’ve got someone you’re taking care of and it takes you away from your child, so front load their attachment and connection.
Establish a repeatable bedtime routine. Maybe it’s a bath story song. Whatever that is for you, make sure it’s filled with a lot of physical touch, something you can both look forward to and that’s repeatable, which means it’s not so crazy that there’s no way you could do it every night. Make it simple. Maybe it’s two very short books, two or three songs, lots of snuggles and touch. Consider offering them a levy or a blanky that is their cue for sleep and gives them that little bit of comfort that’s repeatable and present for them all the time.
At about eight or nine weeks old, you can begin to lay them down awake and they’re not crying. They might just learn to self-settle and self-soothe, and I think this is a great practice to start them with that skill. So early on they start to see that they can do it. Or you might put a little hand on their back or sing to them as they fall asleep. Practice letting them be out of your arms when they fall asleep. Once again, this isn’t them crying and you’re ignoring them. This is you playing with that feeling that they have right before they go to sleep, where they get to practice it, and what you’re doing is laying down some stepping stones, little bits of progress that happen gradually and are building those sleep skills that they’re going to need to be familiar with, a lot of babies mine especially associated sleep with nursing or feeding, and when they’re finally old enough to sleep train, they’ll also be old enough to go through the night without eating, unless you have a special circumstance, you have a child that needs that because of illness or not gaining enough weight.
But if feeding is associated with sleep, then it’s a double whammy for them to lose that comfort as you’re sleep training. So we can switch that up. We can put their last night feeding at the beginning of your bedtime routine so that it’s not associated with falling asleep. So you feed your little one and then change their diaper or read to them, sing to them, so they don’t fall asleep while they’re eating. And the theory here is that whenever conditions are present, when they’re falling asleep at bedtime, that will be what they want when they awaken in the middle of the night and they won’t be able to recreate it right. So I know this might make it hard for you to get them to go to sleep quickly. This is one of those early sleep training steps that will pay off later. And you’re gonna struggle too, because having a baby fall asleep in your arms after being fed is probably the quickest and easiest way to get our kids to sleep and it’s kind of satisfying, right.
I loved that little sleeping infant that I could hold and look at and snuggle before I laid them down. But when you go to switch that that adjustment, it might take a little bit longer, but I want you to think about it as an investment. You have all the same puzzle pieces there. You’re just mixing them up in a way that makes room for the baby to get comfortable with going from being awake to being asleep and not needing food to do that. Okay, another hard part of the plan this was usually the time I started to wean off of the pacifier or the binky. I found that if my babies had their binky, they could go to sleep at first, but in the middle of the night they couldn’t find their binky, even if I put 20 of them in their crib. And when they couldn’t recreate the environment they had to originally fall asleep. I ended up or my husband ended up going in searching for the binky and popping it in their mouth, still depending on us to get the conditions right for them to fall asleep. So if they can’t be fed and they can’t find their binky or they don’t have the rhythm of being rocked to sleep, it’s gonna be hard for them to go to sleep without you. So we’re helping them go to sleep without these things.
As far as having a plan to sleep train, choosing a strategy, there’s so many ways to approach infant sleep. You can literally find anything out there and probably some kind of research that supports it and some kind of research that criticizes it. It can be really confusing. It’s worth looking at the options and I’ll put a summary of different sleep training approaches in the show notes. Just a really general summary. It’s not exhaustive, but just one to kind of get you started. But since this question is for me, I’ll tell you what I think and how I advise parents to consider the process.
I always like to start with the least difficult option Lay the baby down, patter, sing to them to see if they’ll sleep without me holding them, and then lessen that time gradually to see if they’ll sleep on their own. If that didn’t work, I would start on what I call the check and console method. Well, I’m not the only one that calls it that. That’s kind of the general overarching name for all of the sleep strategies that involve checking on your child and consoling them so that checking is the thing that lets them know that they aren’t being abandoned or forgotten, the first thing that holds the attachment secure.
And some of the other methods are what they call extinction based, where it involves leaving your baby to cry it out until they learn that the cries are not going to bring their mom or dad into the room. So their crying becomes extinct and there is some research that says this is not harmful to a child. But the critics of sleep training object to the loss of parental connection and the subsequent stress that occurs when a child possibly feels abandoned. And I think this is more likely to happen with the extinction method. You know, time is just different for kids than it is for us. 15 minutes of crying alone, wanting mom is so much longer for them than it is for us. So I do not suggest sleep training programs that let children struggle for long periods of time without our response. So my preferred method that I recommend is the check and console method.
I’m here, that’s where you check. I’m coming in, I haven’t disappeared, and I’m staying calm and kind and confident that they’re okay and they’re going to learn how to do this. I used to sing one song each time I went in. It was a short song and then I would leave again and sometimes their crying would increase because they did not want you to leave, but I knew deep in my heart they knew I hadn’t disappeared that attachment was affirmed for them. I always use small intervals of time a minute, then two minutes and then maybe, like every five minutes. Maybe at the most I might let them cry for seven or eight minutes, but only after I’d worked up to it and I knew deep in my heart that they knew that I was there. Now they’re just protesting and I would sit outside their door in the hallway where they couldn’t see me with a book. I didn’t try to go to bed or play a game or watch a show or have a conversation. That would make my timing and return feel like an irritation and my focus was on supporting them to be able to get used to the idea that they were okay. I did not want to be distracted and be irritated that I had to go in multiple times. You have to go in multiple times. That is your job.
I think after several times of going in and checking and consoling, things change as far as your child’s crying Maybe not in how it sounds, but I believe they start to get that you are actually there, that you’re responding to them. You’re just not doing what they want you to do, and I would even say out loud I know this is new, it feels funny. Huh, it’s okay, we’ll get it. You can do it. I’m here, we’ll keep working together until we get it. It’s important that you remember this plan and hold the faith so you can translate that to your child. So this is a graduated process, setting up cues that can be relied on instead of you practicing those during the day. And you can even do that by, like putting your baby in a little playpen setting and not picking them up at their first cry, but talking to them while they’re crying and smiling at them and telling them I’m right here, you’re okay, and this can help them get used to the idea that you are there and they are okay. If you don’t pick them up right away, this can take time. I found it usually takes just a couple of nights, sometimes a week.
But if your child is distraught and you aren’t getting any progress, it leads us to our next point. You need flexibility. Your child may not be ready to sleep without you. You may need to postpone your sleep training. Lots of things can put us in this situation. Your kiddo may get sick, they may be cutting teeth, you may have a new baby, a new job that changes the structure of your child’s life. You may have moved or been traveling and out of your routine. I like to think of our kids as having a plate in front of them. If they’re already dealing with a full plate of stuff, like I just mentioned, then adding a big, heaping spoonful of sleep training on top of what they’re already doing might just be too much for them at the time.
We’re the grown-ups. We have more resources to meet our needs. So we need to prioritize our child’s developmental stage and remember that this isn’t forever. It’s just you waiting a few more weeks before you try again. In the meantime, number six, you need support because you need to sleep too.
And though we’re prioritizing our children’s needs, we also have to address our needs. It takes us back to that mother-centered approach. You’re going to need some support and ideally we have two parents handling these sleep challenges. I know that’s not always the case. We always don’t have two parents in the home or both parents might not be available to help in nighttime struggles, but if possible, dad needs to be right there involved in the solution. Okay, this is a very basic overview of approaching sleep training and the painful crying that can come with it. In summary, we’re always going to be thinking about attachment and connection with our child. There are lots of ways to secure attachment. We confront load our daytime attachment so when nighttime comes we feel more confident that we’ve had critical closeness with our child so that they’re full.
Remembering bedtime is separation and it makes sense that it’ll be hard for you guys, as your child is learning how to be alone and get back to sleep on their own. I just want to say I see parents caring for the needs of their babies with such great devotion. Good parents respond to their babies. Good parents also get tired and can feel resentful and absolutely exhausted. I think we must look at both the needs of the baby and the needs of moms and dads, and if we’re going to really take care of families, we want wellness and longevity here. Looking at sleep as a skill and getting kind of practical about it, looking at the many options we have to help our kids get it, can really help us normalize it and not make it traumatic not for our children and not for us. So I hope this answers the question from our tired mom.
You can send me your questions by going to my website, leighgermanncom, and you’ll find my email there, or you can DM me on Instagram at leighgermann. Thank you for spending time with me today and I look forward to talking to you next week, take care. Thanks so much for listening. You can always find me on Instagram, at leighgermann, or on my website at leighgermanncom. Thanks again and I’ll see you next time. The Leadership Parenting Podcast is for general information purposes only. It is not therapy and should not take the place of meeting with a qualified mental health professional. The information on this podcast is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, illness or disease. It’s also not intended to be legal medical or therapeutic advice. Please consult your doctor or mental health professional for your individual circumstances. Thanks again and take care.