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?