Weaning your toddler off middle of the night bottles
One of the most common queries we get is about toddlers who still wake in the night for a bottle!
It may seem that giving a bottle or breastfeed is the only way to get the toddler back to sleep, and is also the quickest option compared to what can feel like hours of crying or sitting with them.
Parents may also worry that their child is really hungry in the night, particularly if they are a fussy eater or not interested in food during the day.
But one thing is certain - as long as you use milk to resettle your toddler in the night, they will continue to want your attention during the night. Often toddlers who get milk feeds in the night are also early wakers, as they lack the self settling skills needed to resettle for that last sleep cycle in the early morning. Plus they continue to be less interested in food in the day...as they are getting extra calories through the night.
Why do night bottles cause night waking?
It's useful to remember that all babies and toddlers wake 4-6 times a night. They 'sleep through' when they can get back to sleep after each awakening without your help!
If you use a bottle or breastfeed to get your child to sleep at bedtime, over time this teaches your toddler that they need the milk to fall asleep.....
Then when you again use milk during the night, once or several times, this constantly reinforces to your toddler that they can only get back to sleep with milk!
So rather than become less likely to wake, your toddler may in fact begin to wake wanting a bottle more frequently - until the point you decide not to use milk as a resettling technique.
Deciding to drop the bottles:
To teach your toddler they can resettle without a bottle first requires YOU to decide this is what needs to happen! Both parents or anyone else involved in resettling need to be committed to the plan of attack.
If you sometimes offer bottles or after a certain amount of crying, your child will be very confused and take a long time to learn what you expect, ie that they can sleep without relying on feeds/bottles.
Be reassured that once your child isn't getting lots of calories from milk during the night, they will start to eat more during the day. It's usually that toddlers are getting so much milk during the night that they don't need to eat well during the day...rather than them being hungry because they are poor eaters!
So decide when you know you can be consistent and stick to your plan, and you will be very surprised at how quickly your toddler learns they can sleep right through without your help.
Bedtime bottle or breastfeed:
Many toddlers continue to enjoy milk as part of their bedtime routine for a long time! It can be a great way to unwind at the end of a busy day, and is a strong cue that it's time for sleeping. Plus warm milk is well-known for helping people of all ages become sleepy!
Here's a few tips to ensure the bedtime milk is not a problem:
- Have the milk sitting up rather than lying down.
- Clean teeth after the bottle.
- Allow 5-10 minutes of awake time AFTER the milk is finished, so your toddler isn't relying on the milk itself to become drowsy or fall asleep.
- Try having the last milk feed of the day sitting on your knee, while you have a story. Then when it's finished, clean teeth and have another story in bed.
- Under no circumstances let your child fall asleep while breastfeeding or having a bottle if you want them to learn to sleep well..this is pretty much guaranteed to result in night-waking, not to mention tooth decay..
How to wean your toddler off middle of the night bottles:
There are a number of different techniques you can use to get rid of bottles in the night.
1. Cold turkey:
By far the quickest way to get rid of bottles in the night is to just stop offering them as a resettling technique. Yes your toddler will protest, toddlers protest about lots of things that aren't to their liking!!
You can use any other resettling technique...just not a milk feed or bottle. See our Gentle Sleep Training Techniques for Toddlers article or the longer article on Teaching your Child to Self Settle for more ideas.
2. Watering down the milk:
This is a gentle and very effective way to wean your toddler off bottles in the night. Over a few nights, gradually dilute the milk with water. Do the same for any bottles offered during the night.
So here's how it might work:
Night 1 - 25% water and 75% milk
Night 2 - 50% water and 50% milk
Night 3 - 75% water and 25% milk
Night 4 - 100% water
Generally within a night or two of just offering water, your toddler will realise that milk isn't an option and they will start to resettle them self and 'sleep through'.
3. Reducing the volume of milk
This technique can be used for breast or bottle feeds.
Over a few nights, you will reduce the amount of milk in the bottles offered or reduce the time of breastfeeding. You may need to combine this technique with another resettling technique or make the reductions in volume or time very slowly so your child adjusts very gradually.
So here's how it might work:
Night 1 - 200 mls milk
Night 2 - 150 mls milk
Night 3 - 100 mls milk
Night 4 - 50 mls milk
Night 5 - No milk!!!
If you are breast-feeding, reduce the time you feed for. Yes you will get grabbing and lots of protesting, so you need a plan of attack for another gentle settling technique you will use instead.
As above, avoid letting your child fall asleep while feeding!!
4. Offering a dummy and/or comforter:
If your toddler is more reliant on the sucking than the actual milk, you may find a dummy or comforter will satisfy them during the night. Pop several in the cot and show your toddler how to put the dummy in them self.
Go for it!
Once you decide to do away with bottles or feeds during the night, you will be amazed at how quickly your toddler's sleep will improve. It may seem an impossible situation to tackle (we often hear 'but they will only go back to sleep with a bottle!!!') but it is actually pretty quick and simple to resolve once you are committed to doing so.
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