Bye-bye bottle: How to wean your baby off their bottle
So you are caught in a vicious cycle; the only thing that will comfort your young child and get them back to sleep is a bottle. They are heading towards age one or maybe even age two, at which stage it is fair to suggest they don't biologically need feeding, and just because they drink it doesn't mean they need it.
Frequent night-time feeders often drink more than their daily requirement of milk overnight. Biologically unnecessary feeds fracture night-time sleep, waking up the digestive system when it should be sleeping, causing overfull nappies and potentially increasing the risk of dental decay. Furthermore, it will absolutely compromise their day-time appetite for both solid food and milk.
By 12 months of age, there is little evidence to suggest most children require night-time feeds. Of course there will be exceptions and, if in doubt, keep a food diary and seek advice from your GP or health visitor. They can assess what you are doing, weigh your child, and confirm whether night feeds are still required, and if so, how many and in what quantities.
One of the largest contributory factors to unnecessary night-time feeds is the inappropriate use of a bottle at bed time. If your child can only get to sleep by sucking a bottle of milk, then he/she may need a bottle in order to cycle through sleep during the night.
I would encourage parents to work on separating the bed-time bottle from sleep, and perhaps providing this feed in the living room before the bed-time wind down. If you make this change, you may find that your child struggles to go to sleep without the aid of the bottle and you will probably have to provide extra reassurance and/or implement a sleep learning technique to help them develop the skill of falling asleep without a bottle. Be mindful that your child doesn't always have to go all the way to sleep on the bottle; sometimes the bottle can be just too close to sleep time and although your child appears awake, a sleepy state has been induced by it. To make sure this doesn't happen I recommend that the bottle be given at least 45 minutes before sleep time and ideally not in the bedroom. This way, your child can have their drink and brush their teeth before the bed-time routine commences.
Another typical scenario would be a child who can put themselves to sleep without a bottle or any other intervention, but still requires night bottles. This may initially have stemmed from historic nap deprivation but can be quickly transformed into a conditioned hunger through regular milk consumption overnight. Remember, if you were to habitually eat during the night, over time you would begin to feel hungry around this time and start to really need this meal.
The ultimate aim, once you have the consent of your GP or health visitor, is to eliminate the night feeds so your child can sleep through uninterrupted and so you can help to improve the day-time appetite for food and milk.
There are many options out there for parents hoping to wean night bottles; they range from cold turkey and diluting to dream feeding or reducing. My preference would be a reducing approach over a number of nights, provided all the other measures are in place.
Often parents will report that they use one bottle over the course of the night, with the child taking sups at each waking. Sometimes parents will observe that the child wakes and drinks a full bottle on each awakening. Decide on your night feeding approach and work on reducing the amount in the feeds over a few nights. Once you get down to 1/2oz, consider them weaned and don't offer it the following night. Use reassurance in its place. You may need to pace the feeds and only offer a bottle within three to four hours of the last one to help regulate the night-feed activity.
It is not easy to break this cycle and, as you do, ensure you offer extra milk and solid food during the days. It will take three to seven days for a day-time appetite to manifest and improve, and it can also take at least 10 nights for night waking to disappear. Provided you feel like you are making improvements incrementally, you should persevere. If no progress is being made -- if the child is still waking frequently and taking ages to resettle - then maybe other elements are not correct and you will need to review the situation.
When making changes towards healthy sleep habits parents typically report increased appetite, enhanced mood and behaviour and longer stretches of sleep between awakenings. If this is happening then keep going, you are on the right track.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice where she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie, t: 087 2683584 or e: firstname.lastname@example.org
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