Night weaning for bottle feeders (a wimp-friendly approach)

Note: File this post under the “do as I say, not as I do” category.

I have two beautiful, ridiculously bright kids with atrocious eating and sleeping habits. The good traits have nothing to do with me; the bad ones, I take complete credit for. Okay, not complete credit – Fearless Husband is equally to blame.

See, at my house, we follow a parenting philosophy called “The Path of Least Resistance” (PLR).  It may not be as popular as Attachment Parenting, but I bet more parents follow this philosophy than would admit. We started out our parenting career doing everything “right” and by the book (first the Dr. Sears book, then the Baby Whisperer book, then the Ferber book  and so on and so forth) but eventually, we realized that our kids had us outmatched. They are BRUTAL, my children. Far smarter than us, with a strength of will that is truly unbelievable. Nothing proved this more than our experience night weaning, in both Fearlette and FC’s cases. I won’t go into the sordid details since this is supposed to be a post about successful night weaning, but know this: if I did relay the whole story, it would be a cautionary tale and not a shining example of what I am about to suggest.

I really dislike reading prescriptive parenting advice, because I believe that every child – and every parent – is an individual, and we need to figure out what works for us. This is one of the more admirable tenants of PLR Parenting (most of this philosophy is built on the less admirable foundation of laziness, exhaustion and beaten-down apathy), and in honor of this, I want to express a profound discomfort with offering instructions of any sort. But I know there is a need for this information, and I hope somebody out there can learn from my mistakes.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s proceed. There is a lot of information about night-weaning a breastfed baby out there, but what about bottle-fed kiddos? When should you start the night weaning process, and how?

One problem with bottlefeeding is that as soon as a kid can hold his own bottle, it is really tempting to let him fall asleep with the bottle in his crib. A “Good Parent” would never do that, since it apparently can lead to major tooth decay. (And also wouldn’t grumpily complain about having to worry about tooth decay before her child had teeth, because what kind of good mother questions the AAP?) But if you are a faithful follower of PLR, you may have succumbed to temptation, especially on night 7 of no sleep when you discovered, quite by accident, that if you leave the bottle in the crib, your little one sleeps soundly through the night. All is not lost, and you can still save your kid from a life of orthodonture! (Unless of course your genetics predispose your offspring to buck teeth. Can’t help you there.)

Even “Good Parent” bottle-feeders can unintentionally fall into the same pattern- when the kids are little, you feed them every time they wake up. At some point, this can become a habit rather than a necessity, at which point you’re pretty much screwed.

So what to do? First of all, you have to be sure that it’s time to night wean. According to most experts, this typically happens between 4-6 months, and when you know they are getting enough calories during the day. Since 4-6 months is the time parents usually start solids, this probably has something to do with it: kids who are waking up because they are legitimately hungry won’t wake up if their tummies are nice and full. But if your baby is waking up from habit, nothing is going to change, even if they eat a whole steak and potato meal before bedtime.

The other issue is that if your baby is underweight or has reflux or any digestive disorders, there’s not all that much you can do about night feedings. Talk to your pediatrician, but in these cases the priority is getting the baby fed and keeping her comfortable, at least until the problem is resolved.

For our purposes, we’re going to assume we’re talking about a healthy, average weight baby. If you’re lucky enough to have one of those, you can try the following PLR-Approved Night Weaning Tips for Bottle Feeders”:

1. On the first night, see what happens if you just don’t give Junior a bottle the first time he wakes up. You might be surprised. Could be that you’ve been feeding him all this time because that’s what you got used to doing early on, and not because he actually expected/wanted the bottle. If you can soothe him back to sleep, consider it a victory. If he wakes up again, repeat step one; if this fails, move to step two.

2. If other attempts at soothing don’t work, feed him half of what you’ve been feeding him – so if he’s been downing 5 oz, only offer 2.5 oz. See if this is enough to get him back down. He may fuss a little, but try putting him in the crib and patting him, shushing him, singing Slayer tunes at the top of your lungs… whatever soothing technique floats your boat. If this works, move to step 3; if not, give him the normal amount for the time being, and next time decrease the bottle by a smaller increment (maybe take away an oz a night).

3. Each night/waking time, decrease the bottle a little more. If this is working, he’s not hungry, he’s just using the bottle (and you) for comfort. Next, you can try the magic solution: WATER. Yep, just give him a bottle of water – or even a bottle that is mostly water and a tiny bit of formula for taste. Not working? Your baby may actually be hungry. Try increasing his food intake during the day (either more solids or formula, depending.) But if it is working, sing Hallelujah and move on to the scary step…Step 4.

4. Now it’s time to take the bottle away. If your baby is still waking multiple times during the night, you may want to try some method of sleep training in addition to this step, since you’ve proven to yourself that they are not waking for hunger (or they wouldn’t go back down with just water). But if it’s gotten to the point where he is up just once, but expecting his bottle full of water, you’re ready to bring in the big guns.

This is the step I always get stuck on. As a proponent of PLR Parenting, I have taken the path of least resistance, which also leads to the path of changing the sheets in the middle of the night. This path requires leaving a bottle of water in your baby’s crib, providing he is old enough to find and hold a bottle on his own. (Before the bottle-feeders-don’t-cuddle-their-babies torch wielding mobs descend, I need to point out that I would LOVE to cuddle my babies while they eat. My babies like to hold their own bottles around 6 months. Both of them. Fearlette is so fiercely independent that when I was insisting I hold her while she has her bottle, she stopped eating altogether and was a few ounces away from failure to thrive. As soon as I let the little monster hold her own bottle, she started eating like a champ. This one’s going to be a terror as an adolescent.) . You can counteract the side effects of this option by using overnight diapers (both Pampers and Huggies make a version) or using those extra absorbent pads that you can stick in a normal or cloth diaper. Also invest in the Ultimate Crib Sheet. That thing is genius.

If you are braver than I, though, you should definitely take the bottle away at this point. You can either do it cold turkey, or try offering a bottle with just a tiny bit of water. You can rest assured that they are not hungry, so you’re not being cruel; of course this is only if you are okay with a little bit of crying. I’m not saying you need to do CIO – you are welcome to stay in the room and soothe your baby all you want – just don’t succumb to the temptation of the almighty nipple. Make your partner help you, if you have one. Take shifts. It will probably take one or two nights of a lot of fussing to break the bottle habit, but if you share the burden, it won’t be as painful.

To review: the best way to night wean is sloooowwwwly. Make sure your baby doesn’t NEED to eat at night, because if s/he is legitimately hungry, this ain’t gonna work. Of course they might be used to consuming a good deal of their calories at night (ahem, Fearlette) and if this is the case, the hunger is real, but the ultimate goal remains the same: work on getting them to eat more during the day so that  they don’t need to wake up to get adequate nutrition. If you are following PLR, use the water trick and prepare for the inevitable flood of urine with absorbent diapers and a waterproof top-sheet for the crib. Remind yourself of the PLR slogans, “This too shall pass”.

Do all of that. And if it doesn’t work, don’t blame me. Who told you to take advice from some random chick on the internet, anyway?

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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25 thoughts on “Night weaning for bottle feeders (a wimp-friendly approach)

  1. PLR parenting rules. I did the same thing as you when I weaned my eldest from night feedings (she was my bottle baby; the little one was breastfed longer and at night). Just to add that sometimes they give clues that they're ready but mom is too tired to really notice. My daughter must have gone several weeks sucking down a whole ounce of a 6 oz bottle before my sleep-deprived self thought, oh, maybe she's not hungry. She was also not fully waking up but since she was my first, I couldn't even wait 10 seconds to see if she quieted down again, much less a few minutes. I suppose video monitors might help with this (I didn't have one with her). In the end, weaning her was nothing short of easy, because she was clearly ready (as a side note, we started solids at 4 months).

  2. Related, we found Dr. Gordon's article (http://drjaygordon.com/attachment/sleeppattern.html ) to be extremely helpful at helping our son night-wean and sleep more easily, just replace “nurse” with “bottle-feed” and it works very well. We did give him a bottle at night until he was about a year old. We didn't just hand it to him so he didn't fall asleep with it in his mouth. He has no dental problems.

  3. The PLR thing obviously takes people in different directions, depending on the circumstances and the personality of those involved 😉 For me, it meant co-sleeping until my babies/toddlers were ready to sleep in their own bed. If I had been bottle feeding though, I would definitely have used a pacifier at night. BTW, my breastfed-till-his-fifth birthday son is currently having over $7 000 worth of orthodontic treatment at the age of 17 to do something about his snaggly canines, so I'd just say: chill. (He had severe adenoids, which were removed when he was 13 and it's that which probably affected his jaw).

  4. I LOVE the PLR parenting coinage! Haha! I think we do the same thing over here. I also have a very strong willed little guy. He's been our “little dictator” since the day he was born. NONE of the conventional wisdom EVER works on him, he's so stubborn. We have to take the PLR all the time just to stay sane. I feel like a giant pushover most of the time, but it sure beats fighting with a tiny person all day and night.

  5. DS (now age 3.5) wouldn't sleep through the night until sometime between 2.5 and 3… it kinda snuck up on us – a nice surprise. Leaving a bottle in the crib was a no-go for us, I was too worried about SIDS and after losing 5 pregnancies I was militant about doing everything within my power to lower the risks of sleep… Hmmm… I wonder if this is why he didn't sleep through the night.

    Co-sleeping has been our friend (in a cradle when younger, once he could climb into our bed himself, then bed sharing style), but it's also been our enemy; night terrors while bed sharing have resulted in me having bruised ribs and hubby with a broken nose.

    What has been our good buddy is the soother. Yes, we've been “warned”, but babies who breast-feed comfort suck, so why not bottle-fed babes? And expecting him to fed himself from a bottle was a non-question. Days before DS's 1st b-day, as well as his first day at daycare, I realized, my kid doesn't know how to hold a bottle… had never done it. (Thank goodness for daycare staff who love cuddles too).

    I've co-slept, bed-shared, camped out on the floor of his room, slept in the hall with his door open, and probably more I don't remember through the sleep deprived stuper. Sooner or later, they'll sleep through the night. And a few months after they start doing that, you might too. Then potty training begins…

  6. My daughter just turned 2 and still wakes up at night. grrrrr…. We finally got her off of the bottle, man she loved that thing! She now goes down to bed ok, although the stalling has started now. i.e. drink water, change diaper (!!), see Mommy/Daddy, etc. We were so sleep deprived at the height of this (about a year ago) that we started bringing her into our bed at night just so we could sleep. Now she is still waking once almost every night and demanding to sleep in our bed. I have NO, I repeat, NO willpower at 3 am, I don't know how she does. Besides breast feeding, sleep issues have been the biggest challenge for us. I'd take temper tantrums over night waking any day!

  7. A combo of withholding night bottles (since they weren't really eating anymore anyway, just comfort sucking a few times) and a version of CIO at 6mos did the trick for us. However, they recently switched to big boy beds, from cribs…and they share a room. So, now we are dealing with shenanigans every night at bedtime. Things are improving, but they are still falling asleep much later than they should be. Daycare resumes next week (children home all summer with teacher Dad, and WAY off routine) and that should help.

    An observation on the sleeping end of things: like FFF mentions that if the baby gets enough to meet her caloric needs during the day, she doesn't need to eat at night, I think sleep works similarly. As in each baby needs X hours of sleep/24hr period, with naps and overnight, and if he sleeps too late in the morning or naps too long, this may result in going to sleep too late at night, or missing a much needed nap. At least, this has been the case in this house…..anyone else notice something like that?

  8. Haha, I think it runs in the family or something. But I'm terrified I'm going to get one of those who doesn't sleep through the night ever next time just to punish me for having it so easy this time.

  9. My son night-weaned himself at about 3 weeks old. Of course, still attempting to breastfeed, I WOKE HIM UP ANYWAY every night to try to get him to feed anyway so I could keep my “supply” up (he wouldn't feed, and I had no supply to speak of). What a waste of a good, sleepy baby! Wish I'd realized how ridiculous it was sooner.

  10. Antigone, I would kill for a “lazy” baby. How do you make one of those? 😉

    I feel really cheated, because everyone promised me that if I had a tough baby the first time, the second would be easy. This is turning out to be a pack of lies. Le sigh.

  11. Thank god I got a lazy baby who decided getting up at night wasn't worth the trouble at 2 months old. She's also too lazy to hold her own bottle though.

  12. This is EXACTLY what I'm going through right now. And my little girl ALSO refuses to be held while eating… LOL Totally hear ya 🙂 🙂 UGH! So I'm in the process of doing the cut down at the moment… it's harsh!

  13. Oh how I relate to this. We just started to go in at night and rock/cuddle/pet child till he realized he wasn't getting a bottle and agreed to go back down (if you can call howling indignantly and then sputtering to sleep “agreeing”) and then did sleep training, which worked so remarkably well that we wished we had done it earlier – all this at about 8-10 months. My husband was doing night feedings from ages about 2 months up until that point and was often inclined to just give the bottle if it meant child would go back to sleep sooner but he (husband) was super sleep deprived after some months, which is what led us to sleep training. The water in the bottle trick, recommended by my mother too, did not work at all for us. Totally agree on Path of Least Resistance as a philosophy, and its correlate: Sleep Deprivation is the Mother of All Decisive Parenting Action.

  14. A broken nose? Yikes!! I know it doesn't take much force to break one of the small bones, but I can't imagine *waking up* to that kind of pain and confusion.

    You hit on something that aggravates me–the idea that only breastfed babies get to comfort suck. My baby needs her pacifier. That's not “correct” in some circles, but she doesn't use it all day, just when she's tired. I get very frustrated thinking I belong to the Bad Mommy camp for giving it to her.

    I'd laugh at the “a few months after they start doing that, you might too” bit but it hits a little close to home and I'm so tired right now… 😛

  15. Babies likes the sips cups you can this. If the proper weaning during the day time then you may not have to give weaning in the nights. Make sure that your baby is getting much weaning before 10 PM. So that he will not awake for night weaning.

  16. Loved this! We are on day 3 of cold turkey no bottles at night. He’s 16 months old…about time I think but it’s not been easy. This gives me hope! I hope a solid week of this will do the trick. Thanks for the laughs too!

  17. I love this advice! My house DEF let’s little man run the show, esp when it comes between 12 pm-6 am! We have cut out most “bobbys” through the day.. I’ve been searching for advice for PLR parenting. It’s so hard to find now that every mother is an expert. Thank you so much for advice I can actually use! !

  18. I love this!! I have a very strong-willed little girl with the cutetest smile that just flattens me every time, not to mention the ear piercing tantrums…!! I came across this blog in an attempt to find info on night weaning. My little love is 14 months and has been a terrible sleeper since day 1. She has reflux and colic which was undiagnosed for 9 months (!!) which has caused heaps of bad habits and meant that I was totally against CIO (I always knew something was wrong). Now I am too scared to do CIO…*shame* so we are going to try the slow retreat method, but I feel we need to curb night feeds to help with the night waking…*Sigh* PLR parenting is my friend…

  19. Pingback: Me and Messy 3 | Path Of Least Resistance

  20. Hey,those are some great tips. But what to do if the baby is addicted to the bottle? Is the best method to let him cry?

  21. Hi ,wondering how long will take to my 5 months old to drop the 3 h. Night feed ?she is generally a fairy normal sleeper . Napping during the day and settling in her own bed after bottle feed with the dummy ,white noise …and a only a small amount of protest .I am doing the bottle of water tecnique ,how I can be sure this works for her and after how long she should not wake up at 3a.m.she is still waking up for the feed at 5.a.m. which I am happy with. Also I am doing the dream feed at 11p.m…Will be great to hear your opinions ,experiemce

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