Toddler Night Waking: No More Bottles

Night feeding beyond the first year

Toddler night waking is more common than you may expect. While some wake for comfort and are easily settled after a bad dream or a short period of disrupted sleep, others have more habitual needs such as a breast or bottle feed in order to settle again for the night on one or more occasions.

It is easy to see why a late night quick fix such as a bottle of warm milk or a cosy breastfeed may seem like the less challenging option when compared to the idea of sitting up, into the wee hours with a crying toddler who won’t go back to sleep unless they have their bottle or breastfeed. By toddler age, there may already be another baby on the way. Perhaps an older sibling is also being disturbed at night. Mum and Dad could certainly do with a good night’s sleep by this stage and a toddler can become more challenging to manage during the day if they’re having disrupted night time sleep.

Parents may also worry that their toddler is genuinely hungry at night and this is made more worrying if day time meals are an issue due to fussy eating. Night feeding has an impact on this as the calories your toddler is receiving at night is being off-set against the day time requirements. Your toddler may be sustaining their hunger with the night time feeds and therefore they do not experience a boost in hunger during waking hours. For this reason it can be useful to look at your toddler’s behaviour as a whole and decide what daytime issues (if any) may be as a result of night feeding.

More often than not, toddlers who wake at night for milk or other props will be more likely to continue to do so until an intervention is put in place to bring the behaviour to an end. The process is habitual and it requires your consistent approach to address and resolve the night waking. Toddlers who feed during the night are quite often also early risers. This is because they have not yet mastered the ability to self-soothe so as they transition through the light sleep phase early morning, they are once again not able to settle back to sleep on their own.

Why does night feeding cause toddlers to wake

Let’s look at sleep from a practical point of view. Babies, toddlers, children and adults all wake multiple times throughout the night. New babies wake from a basic instinct to feed for survival. As our circadian rhythms adjust and our sleep cycles evolve, we learn to move from one sleep phase to the next with minimal interruption. As adults we may not remember rousing briefly during the night or you may remember turning over and then going right back to sleep again. Babies learn this skill over time and with your help, they can move from a state of waking to going back to sleep as they acquire the self-soothing skills.

Babies and toddlers need your help in order to master their own self-soothing skills. If you breast or bottle feed your baby (or provide any other intervention to help your child to go back to sleep) then it is quite likely that they will have difficulty learning to settle themselves after a period of waking as they believe that they need you to intervene by giving a breast or bottle feed to get back to sleep again.

Perhaps you have found yourself in a situation where your baby was sleeping through the night without the need for milk feeds and then after a brief period of illness or change in routine, a feed was given with good intentions and a subsequent habit was created and your toddler now wakes frequently as they believe that this is now a requirement for getting back to sleep. It is quite remarkable how quickly this can take place. Your toddler may start waking more frequently as time goes on, they quickly lose the ability to self-settle if each waking period is being met with a feed or other prop.

The impact of night feeds

As discussed, your toddler is unlikely to suddenly stop wanting a feed during the night. It is up to you and your family or anyone else helping to resettle your toddler at night, to make the change and commit to it until you’ve resolved the issue of night waking. If you have tried the approach of ‘crying it out’ to see if you toddler would settle and then you’ve gone in anyway some time later, this will simply confuse your toddler and teach him or her that it requires a lot of crying but if he or she persists, they will get your attention at some point, resulting in the feed they need to get back to sleep.

Once you make the decision to address the night feeding, you must remain committed to the process every step of the way otherwise, you risk undoing all the hard work and effort you’ve put in and confusing your baby further.

On the upside, once your toddler is no longer getting the calories he was once getting from night feeds, you should in time, see quite a remarkable increase in daytime appetite. Be reassured that additional night time calories will be replaced during the day once your child realises that their appetite is increasing as a result of the night time deficit.

When you’re ready to move forward and you want to start the process of weaning off night feeds, be sure that there are no other factors that will interrupt the process such as trips away, visitors etc… it won’t take long but it will take commitment and a consistent approach. It can be useful to set aside a period of two weeks to manage any interruptions or setbacks.

It is fine to include milk as part of your toddler’s bedtime routine. It can be a great way of creating a ‘count’ down to bed time and many toddlers look forward to their milk before bed. In fact, many children have milk before bed for many years to come and that is absolutely fine. The problem comes in when it is used as a ‘prop’ or required in order to get to sleep during the night.

Consider the following when giving milk at bedtime:

✔ If possible, give the milk in another room or sitting quietly in the nursery

✔ Allow a period of wake time after the bedtime milk, this could include story time or a song before going down for the night so that the association is broken between milk and sleep

✔ Brush teeth after the milk

✔ Do not let your child fall asleep on the breast or with a bottle as this not only contributes to tooth decay but it can also confuse your child as they will wake at night expecting to find their milk, just as it was when they fell asleep at bedtime

Where to begin?

There are a few different approaches you can use to cut out toddler night feeding. Which of the options below seems the most appealing? When you’ve decided, make your commitment and don’t go back.

Going cold turkey:

This is the fastest approach but will take some commitment and a tough approach as there will be tears and late night protests ahead. You simply remove the milk feeding altogether, you may use any other sleep training technique such as controlled crying or gradual retreat to help your baby get back to sleep while also teaching them the essential skill of self-soothing.

Do not give your child a feed, breast or bottle at any point during this process. If they become ill, you may need to postpone your plan of action until your child is well again.

Dilute your toddler’s milk if bottle feeding:

If cold turkey isn’t quite your ideal approach, then this can be a good alternative that is a little gentler but may take a bit longer as you will need to gradually dilute the milk over the course of a week or so.

If cold turkey isn’t quite your ideal approach, then this can be a good alternative that is a little gentler but may take a bit longer as you will need to gradually dilute the milk over the course of a week or so.

Follow this step by step process:

Night 1-2 add 25% water and 75% milk

Night 2-4 add 50% water and 50% milk

Night 4-6 add 75% water and 25% milk

Night 7 - 100% water and then reduce the volume until no longer taken.

Within a couple of nights of just offering the water, it is highly likely that your toddler will not be interested in waking for water as the milk is no longer an option and the water offers no nutritional reward.

Reducing the volume of milk

This technique is effective for bottle fed babies whether using breast or formula milk:

Follow the step by step process outlined previously, only this time you will reduce the milk volume offered by bottle or reduce the time of breastfeeding. You may also need to use a sleep training technique while making the reductions to ensure that your toddler gets the message that what is offered is all that is available and they need to start self-settling if when they are ready to go back to sleep.

Slowly reduce the quantities over a week or so, or the time you spend breastfeeding so that it is not worth waking for such a small reward.

It can be a little more challenging if you’re breastfeeding as your baby is likely to pull, grab and protest when taken off the breast so it is even more important that you work with a sleep training technique alongside your reduced feeding plan so that you avert any other unintentional sleep props, inadvertently replacing one problem with another. As above do not let your toddler fall asleep on the breast or bottle.

Can I offer my toddler a dummy or other comforter?

If your toddler is more interested in the sucking than the milk, it may be useful to use a dummy to replace the milk. This is easily removed again with some very effective dummy removal techniques such as the dummy fairy. You may want to leave a few dummies in the cot so that your toddler can easily reach for one during the night if required and will then not need your intervention to find the dummy or replace it in his or her mouth. This should only be used as an option if you are certain that your toddler has a very strong sucking need.

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