Here’s what we learned when dozens of tired mums put their burning sleep questions to expert Caroline Zwierzchowska…

So, you might know that we’ve recently brought some exciting new features to Mush: dozens of live chat groups around different themes (from mental health to Spanish mums) AND our new premium expert advice section in which a whole panel of parenting gurus are waiting to answer your questions. We’re rolling Ask An Expert out gradually but if you’d like access and it’s not already on your menu bar, drop us a line.

This week, our new features collided and we invited parenting expert and holistic sleep coach Caroline Zwierzchowska to chat live to mums in our Sleep Deprivation Society group. Caroline was full of fantastic advice for the dozens of knackered mums who put questions to her, so if you missed out (maybe you were fruitlessly soothing a sleep-resistant baby?) then here are some of the highlights.

FREQUENT WAKING

Q: “My LO is 8 months old and still wakes up 3 to 4 times a night. I really don’t want to let her cry it out to sleep train. Any tips?”

A: “This is really normal (about 85% of babies do this) but tough on you so there are some things to try and help her sleep a little longer. If she is pretty regular, then you can wake up and go to her 5-7 mins before she’s due to wake up and pat/sshh her to help her move into another sleep cycle. Make sure she’s getting enough daytime naps (probably 3) with the longest one in the middle of the day. Sometimes moving her feed to earlier in the bedtime routine (before bathtime) can really change how she gets to sleep and help through the night. Giving a big feed before bed can stretch the stomach and make things worse not better. Make sure she’s eating and exercising well during the day too.”

NEWBORN ROUTINE

Q: “Some people say I should already have a sleep routine at 10 weeks, while others say it’ll happen when it happens. What is best? Is it normal for him to wake 3 times a night? I’m getting annoyed by people making me feel bad about it…”

A: “As your little one is only waking 3 times a night I’d say you’re onto a winner with whatever you’re doing already! Many babies this age wake much more frequently than that! Trust your instincts – 10 weeks is far too young to be having a ‘sleep routine’. It can be a great idea to start to use the same words, songs or habits every time it’s sleep or nap time as you can build on these habits as he grows. It’s also a good idea to make sure that 12(ish) hours are bright and louder and 12 are darker and quieter, to help the circadian (day/night) rhythm establish. If you have a look at my website, you’ll find my free guides to help establish great sleep habits. Don’t stress about a routine as such though – plenty of time for that as he grows older. I’m a big fan of instinctive parenting – what feels right for you is usually what’s right for your baby! You’ve got this!”

ROCKING TO SLEEP

Q: “I’m really struggling with my bottle fed one year old’s sleep. At the moment he’s wanting three feeds a night and I still have to feed him to sleep for night and naps and have to rock or cuddle him. I don’t like the idea of controlled crying. Is there any way I can get him to go to sleep and stay asleep without needing the feeds and rocking? He’s getting a bit heavy now for me to be there for up to an hour sometimes rocking to sleep through the night….”

A: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeding or rocking to sleep but it sounds like you’re finding this really tiring so it might be time for some different strategies. First I’d suggest building up other comfort associations alongside what you are doing, so you might want to introduce a comfort toy to help him before taking anything else away. Try moving the feed before his first bedtime put down to earlier in the routine, and when you’re rocking him add in patting and/or shhing. Then when he’s on the point of dropping off do the transfer but continue the patting. He’ll probably rouse so know that this will be tough for the first week or two. Keep going with this gradually shortening the time you rock and limiting the length of any feed you are offering him, giving him the comforter and patting instead as you transfer him. The aim is to get him happier in his cot in a drowsy state rather than needing to be in your arms as he actually falls asleep. When this is working well for the bedtime put down, then you can start to use the strategies through the night as well. During the night I’d try to reduce the length of feeds by a minute every couple of days, until one of them is a put down rather than a feed (maybe try this with the middle feed at first).”

FEEDING TO SLEEP

Q: “I have an almost 7 month old girl with a big nurse to sleep association. The issue is she can sleep on me after/during nursing at nap and bedtimes but wakes up either when I put her down, or after 5 to 10 minutes if she does go down. She is definitely tired as I watch for her sleep cues and she tends to be happily awake for about 2 hours or so. After she wakes she then spends the next few hours in a screaming overtired state before she finally drops off exhausted. I spend this time in a dark room, I’ve tried white noise to no avail and if I put her in her cot when sleepy but awake she screams non-stop and wakes herself up fully. No amount of shushing, patting or stroking seems to send her to sleep. Any tips please? Once asleep for the night she generally sleeps well, usually with one wake up for milk.”

A: It’s completely biologically normal for babies to feed to sleep – the reasons it works so well include breastmilk having a hormone in it that helps baby (and you) to sleep. It sounds like this is something you’d like to change though. Go for a good feed close to bedtime but then break it up with something else (story?) before cuddling and sleep time. It sounds like patting and stroking doesn’t work well for your little one so have you considered a floor bed? You set this up instead of her cot (so check the room for safety) and then snuggle down with her until she’s asleep. You can then gently leave her there without the tears. Some parents are happy with this and some eventually move back to a cot with them lying next to it to help settling, then you in a chair nearby etc. I never advocate leaving babies to cry alone or at all for extended periods so the floor bed may work well for you to stop the tears. Teaching self-soothing is a bit of  a myth – it’s a developmental stage to be able to happily get yourself back to sleep and comes much later in most babies development. Good luck!”

LATE NIGHT PARTIES

Q: “My soon to be 9 month wakes every night after 1-2 hours of sleep. She goes to bed around 7.00 after 45 mins of routine/quiet time, often either fed or held to sleep. When she wakes she won’t initially wake fully but will thrash around trying her best to fall back asleep but will often fail. Sometimes she can be resettled being held or with a feed but more than often will be wide awake for an hour plus wanting to crawl/play. She has two naps a day totalling around 2.5hrs all together which are also a struggle but fairly regular times.”

A: “There’s a lot of cultural associations with a 7pm bedtime, but recent research suggests that some toddlers and older babies function better with a later bedtime. I’d suggest trying a powernap of 20 mins or a single sleep cycle of 45m around 7 and then bedtime proper at 9ish. If that works well and eliminates the long unplanned wake up, then move that late bedtime forward by 5 mins every 2 days or so until you’ve got a balance of a time you’re happy with and a baby who doesn’t have a big wake up!”

NO SLEEP AT HOME

Q: “My 14 week old was sleeping through whenever we are away from home but at home he is waking every couple of hours and I am just exhausted. He is breastfed and I don’t know if he is just using it as comfort…”

A: “It’s really normal for a baby, especially a breastfed baby, to be waking every couple of hours but it’s tough on you. It’s really normal for babies to only be comforted at the breast – it’s exactly how they were made to be and you’re doing an amazing job of making your child feel secure and happy in this way. Breastfeeding is SO much more than nutrition  – comfort, attachment, temperature and heartrate regulation – everything can be got at the boob. Nowadays though, we don’t live in tribes where we would co-sleep in groups and feed each other’s babies so nights with a little one boobing frequently can be super tiring. At this age night waking does two very important jobs. Firstly it enables baby to feed frequently which is important for brain development, and secondly it is a protective factor against SIDS or cot death. Because it’s so important for babies to wake up at this age for their safety, I would be wrong to make any suggestions to extend their natural sleep patterns at this early age.

“One of the most important features of human milk is that it is higher than any other mammalian milk in lactose. The reason for this is that we have the most complex brains and the primary source of fuel for the brain is sugar – and therefore lactose in milk is designed to grow our complex brain! Do remember that this waking frequently stage will likely pass. Reframing it as ‘my baby is waking because they knows they needs brainfood (breastmilk)’ and linking it to all the amazing things they are learning can help you to make a little peace with the stage you are currently at. It doesn’t make it any the less tiring for you though, so make sure you’re looking after yourself, resting where you can, and downgrading other priorities / farming them out to friends and relatives as you’re doing THE most important job here of helping your child grow and develop. Co-sleeping helps many breastfeeding mums to get the maximum amount of sleep, and you can also try making sure he’s busy in between daytime naps as it sounds like when you’re away from home there’s lots going on and he’s tired out. Make sure you accept all offers of help and snooze when you can during the day. This stage WILL pass!”

TODDLER TROUBLE

Q: “My 19 month old has always slept well in his own bed but after going on holiday and sleeping with me and my hubby for two weeks straight he now refuses to sleep in his bed on his own. I still breastfeed and I’m wanting to stop but he is always upset if I say no so end up giving him boob. Do you have any advice for me?”

A: “You may need to take a few steps backwards too to meet him where he is now and you could try either sitting or lying next to his cot to reassure him that you are there before being ready to fully put him to sleep on his own. It’s fantastic that you’re breastfeeding at 19 months, and if it feels like the right time to stop, then a combination of ‘don’t offer don’t refuse’ and reducing timings of feeds by a minute every 2-3 days until it’s a ‘check in’ rather than a feed. This will also ensure you don’t get any physical issues as your supply will be dropping gradually.”

NAPTIME NIGHTMARES

Q: “My 7 month old sleeps all night but is so bad at naps. He will only nap in my arms, or will wake after 45 minutes. What can I do?”

A: “It is great to hear that your 7 month old sleeps all night – don’t shout or all the mums will want one! For naps, some babies of his age much prefer 3 shorter 1 sleep cycle naps and more of them, and others can manage 2 longer naps. You can try to go to him 5-7 minutes before he’s due to wake and pat or sshh him through to another sleep cycle. If you’re happy with him taking a nap in your arms then it’s a great opportunity to have some downtime yourself – maybe get to watch the last season of GoT!”

HOURLY WAKE UPS

Q: “My 4 month old girl is lately not sleeping well. She wakes up at 5am and does not go back to sleep. She’s up every hour or every one and half hours. She’s also not napping for very long during the day. Today she only napped for half an hour in the afternoon. I’m mentally and physically exhausted. I could do with some advice. I don’t know if she’s going though teething or sleep regression. She was breastfed but is now on formula.”

A: “In my experience, babies this age rarely have any sleep problems, but our society has changed rapidly over the last couple of hundred years and we now expect babies to fall asleep on their own, often in a separate sleep space such as a crib. Unfortunately babies’ biology hasn’t caught up with this and they are programmed to wake frequently to feed, which helps them to grow, and to want to sleep on their parents. We are carry mammals so unlike baby giraffes who walk away as soon as they are born, our babies need us to hold them for them to feel safe. No one has told your little ones that they are safe from sabre tooth tigers in their cots, so they are programmed to only feel safe in your arms. As well as this, your baby was used to be continuously held, rocked, curled up and close to you, feeling your heartbeat, constantly drip fed, and had constant temperature regulation. If you think about it, it’s no wonder they don’t sleep well outside that environment having been so used to it for 9 months!

Coupled with that, because of our soft duvets, warm houses and other changes, we now know that is is safest for babies to be put to sleep in their backs. Often they don’t much like this though, so we get very frequent waking. The waking up seems to be protective against SIDS so as a sleep coach, I don’t recommend trying to get tiny babies to sleep longer than they are naturally doing, but instead try to help the parents to organise their lives so that they have as little else to do as possible but feed the baby and sleep. Babies simply don’t have developed enough brains to be able to ‘self-sooth’’ – to reassure themselves that all is well without a parent’s help. Cry it out ‘sleep training’ methods generally result in babies learning that their needs won’t be met and so they stop crying but often still wake or have raised cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Co-sleeping safely generally gives new parents the best opportunity to get as much sleep as possible, but remember this stage won’t last – your babies are very tiny! So get all the help you can and build your village as we weren’t built to do this alone.”

TINY TUMMY

Q: “I have a 6 month old who has been waking every 2 hours at night (or worse) for the last 2 months. The only way to settle him is to feed him. We are putting him down awake and he settles himself to sleep at the start of the night and after every wake up. Is this something he will grow out of naturally or can we help him to sleep for longer stints? We don’t think he needs the feed every 2 hours (although he feeds this frequently during the day) but he is small for his age at 14lbs so we’re not sure. Any help much appreciated – VERY sleep deprived!”

A: “It’s great to hear that the getting him to sleep is fairly easy, though the every 2 hours sounds tough! It may well be that as a petite baby he has a stomach to match hence the fairly frequent feeding. It may be worth really trying to up his daytime feeding and then building some other sleep associations up for the nighttime (comforter, music/pink noise, patting) so that you can then start to put a little distance between the first feed and him actually going to sleep. It is a time of great change and each feed will help him to grow and develop. Make sure that his naps are good during the day – a gap of about 2-2.5 hours between sleeps is about right at this age, and overtiredness will make the night sleep worse. Usually 3 naps works well – about 9am (45-60 mins), 12.30pm (about 1.5-2 hours), and 4pm (about 20 mins is common at this age). Those may need adjusting if his naps are shorter. I’d then try waking him to feed as you are going to bed yourself, and trying to ensure a really effective feed there, and then on each alternate wake, offer the comfort measures rather than a feed. He may well start to naturally drop some of those feeds as he grows, and elongate the sleep times as a result.”

BEDTIME BLUES

Q: “Every evening we have the same battle of getting our nearly 11 week old down to bed. He just screams if we try make him sleep anywhere but our arms. We have a spare Moses and a bouncer chair in the living room with us but he won’t settle until around 10:30-11pm no matter what. Any tips for this?”

A: “If he’s going down around 10.30-11 then I’d suggest just aiming for that as the family bedtime at the moment, and for the earlier part of the evening just chill with him downstairs. If you can lose the bedtime battle by not even trying till then, then you can gradually bring it forward 5 minutes every couple of days from that.”

TEETHING TRAUMAS

Q: “I have a 10 month little girl who used to sleep through until about 2 months ago, She will go to sleep for about 9, but consistently wakes up. I’ve been putting it down to teething as she’s been struggling with them. Any tips? And is her bedtime too late?”

A: “It may be teeth, and general developmental changes. I wish sleep just got better but instead it goes back and forth for a couple of years. Some things that might help when awake include using a teething toy cooled in the fridge, a clean wet flannel that has been knotted and popped into the fridge can also be a great chew toy. You can also try gentle massage with your clean finger or a gentle fingertip baby toothbrush. Lots of cuddles and reassurance are of course also important in helping your little one cope with any discomfort.”

“If 9 pm works for you then don’t worry about it  – it’s not like she has work in the morning! It’s more important that she’s getting good naps in the day and that things are consistent with a calm down period before bed.  I’d expect her to be having two hour+ long naps and 10-11 hours overnight (not all in one chunk) so if you’re getting that and she doesn’t seem overtired then it’s not an issue. If she is being cranky before 9pm then gradually edge the time forward a few minutes each night.”

SPOTTING SLEEP CUES

Q: “­­How do I  get my 8 week old to sleep in the day? I’ve acted on the signs when I see the yawn and put her straight down but she won’t sleep in her cot, walking or in the car unless I am holding her and will cry all day.”

A: “Although yawning is an early sleep cue, have a look for what is called ‘gaze aversion’, when she starts to turn her head or look away that’s the first sleepy cue.  It sounds like a baby sling /baby wearing will really help your little one as it will give her the closeness she needs but free you up too.”

SLEEP ASSOCIATIONS

Q: “How can I help my 6 month old son sleep for longer or not wake as often? His bedtime routine starts around 8:15 and he’s nursed to sleep (I was unaware that this was a “bad” sleep association and now can’t seem to get him out of it) but then wakes frequently. I’m becoming extremely exhausted and he starts his days between 5 and 6..”

A: “I wonder who told you nursing to sleep was a ‘bad’ association? If it works for you then it’s just what mums have done for millennia!  Waking frequently after midnight is often associated with being more sensitive to environmental changes such as temperature, light and noise. If he’s overtired then this will make it worse and it can become a habit too. Trying to lengthen the daytime naps may really help him. This may be through movement, sleeping on you – whatever works for you both. Once the underlying overtiredness is addressed the nighttime wakes may well lessen. At 6 months he may be needing to ‘tank up’ a bit in the day but be distracted by how fun the world is now he’s sitting up. Try nursing in a distraction-free dimmer room, so that he can really fill up during the day and not feed quite so much need to nurse at night. Most babies are morning larks so focussing on the daytime and midnight to 5 may then give you the energy you need at 5am!”

REFLUX BABIES

Q: “My baby has serious reflux but I’m starting to train him into a good sleep routine. But after every feed I will need to hold him up for more than one hour and as soon as I put him down, he feels sick and milk come up through the mouth and vomit. After the midnight feed, he falls asleep on me straight away and I can’t get him burped and I also can’t put him down because of the reflux. I have to hold him on me the second half night in order to get some sleep. I feel like I can’t train him into sleeping routine because of the bad reflux. Any advice?”

A: “It’s really normal for babies of this age to night wake and he is too young for me to want to artificially lengthen his sleep periods, especially when he’s got this discomfort from reflux. I have a free factsheet on reflux you may find really useful – it goes through many ideas to help identify the cause of the reflux and steps to help address it. At that midnight feed, try holding him over your right shoulder with his tummy towards the middle of your chest. If you’re breastfeeding then an upright position such as laid back breastfeeding may really help, and if you’re formula feeding have a look at youtube videos of ‘paced feeding’ and aim for little and often to help him be more comfortable and able to be put down after 20 mins or so at that night feed.  Reflux is really tough on mums but it does tend to resolve around 6 months when they are sitting up on their own.”

We hope you all found Caroline’s words of wisdom useful – and we hope you get some sleep tonight! Keep your eyes peeled for more live chats and let us know via our Mush Feedback chat group (you’ll find it in your messages tab) if there are any particular topics you’d like to cover with our experts. We all know that one on one advice can be invaluable when you’re struggling.