The case for extended bottle feeding

Back in 2010, I wrote three posts about bottle weaning (here, here, and here) where besides offering practical advice,  I admitted to being an abject failure at getting FC to give up the bottle. It actually took another year to get him off the damn things completely; he still insisted on having a bedtime bottle of almond milk until the eve of his third birthday, when he handed me his weathered Born Free (hey, I wasn’t about to buy him a new one. That would be permissive parenting) and announced that “three-year-olds don’t use bottles.” True enough, son.

What I didn’t write in those posts was the sacred promise I made to myself that next time – if there were a next time – I wouldn’t be caught in the same position. If I ended up bottle feeding the next child, s/he would be weaned onto a sippy cup by 9 months. No teary battles, no negotiation (I think FC managed to weasel about 10 new Thomas trains out of me while I tried to bribe him out of his bottle addiction), no long, drawn-out process. I’d be a stronger parent. I’d lay down the law. My second child would be way easier to deal with, because statistically, people who have a difficult baby the first time around have an easy one the next. That’s a scientific fact, my friends.

Obviously, that was before I met Fearlette.

Fearlette is a tough chick, at the tender age of 17 months. Her favorite color is black. She tortures our dog and laughs when he nips her in self-defense. She kicks her older brother’s ass on a daily basis. And she is not going to give up her bottle without a fight.

I tried to keep my promise, I really did. I swore up and down I wouldn’t allow her to use the bottle as a nighttime crutch, but then my husband started working nights, I was pulling double duty, and it was the only way she’d sleep. I wouldn’t let her have a bottle in the car, but I gave in the second time I got pulled over for hazardous driving because she was screaming so loudly I thought she’d have an aneurism.

I introduced the sippy cup early, and considering she could drink from a real cup by herself by the time she was 10 months old, I thought I was in the clear. Yet at 17 months, she still wants her bottle. She doesn’t even drink from it half the time; she drags it around the house with the nipple between her teeth and yells “NO!” if you even talk about taking it away from her. There is no way in hell she’ll go to sleep unless she has three things: her stuffed lamb, a tiny pink Snoopy, and her bottle.

But you know what? I don’t care, and here is why: I’m cool with the idea of child-led weaning. It works for breastfeeding moms, and it can work for bottle feeding moms, too.

For some kids, a bottle is just a means to an end. These are probably the same types of kids who wean from the breast easily. Then there are others who suckle for comfort; those that adore pacifiers or their thumbs or a breast or a bottle. I overheard a woman the other day wistfully wishing that her year-old daughter would be a thumb sucker, because she’d been having to play the role of human pacifier all night long. Breastfed or bottle-fed doesn’t seem to matter as much as whether or not your kid has a built-in oral fixation. (Case in point: Fearlette already bites her tiny nails. If I can keep her away from cigarettes or compulsive gum chewing, I’ll consider myself a success.)

So why the pressure to get kids off the bottle, and not off the breast?

1. They need to be able to use a cup. Fearlette is totally capable of using a sippy cup, water bottle, or coffee mug filled with Mommy’s special “juice”. She wants the bottle when she wants to chill out and chillax. As long as your child has the motor skills necessary to drink from a cup, you’re golden.

2. They need to be able to enter kindergarten with at least some non-decayed teeth. Bottles are notorious for causing tooth decay. However, when you’re talking about one evening bottle (especially if you brush teeth after you baby’s finished), there’s no evidence that this will cause his/her teeth to rot any more so than a toddler who is breastfeeding. There is a theory that the anti-bacterial properties in breastmilk will prevent the bacteria which causes tooth decay, but I can find no real proof that this is true. Also, if you are worried about cavities, my recommendation is to make bottles a water-only experience (this is also a good weaning tip – if you only allow the yummy drinks in cups, kids may start to get the message).

3. They need to not look like chipmunks. Pacifiers and thumb sucking may lead to an overbite, so it stands to reason that the later a child uses a bottle, the more likely he is to need the services of a skilled orthodontist. This poses a philosophical question that only you can answer: at what age would you wean your child off a pacifier or break a thumb-sucking habit? Whatever age that is, it is probably the same point you want to take away the bottle.

4. They need to not be obese/underweight. FC liked to drink his almond milk in bottles so much that he began to want milk rather than food. He dropped so many percentiles that his doctor became concerned and suggested that if we took away the bottles, he’d start eating more. That was when we decided bottles would be for nighttime only. And sure enough, he started eating. (Although he’s still a scrawny little dude, but that’s probably just genetics.) There’s also concern that kids who like to sip on bottles throughout the day will be consuming extra calories from milk or juice. There’s a quick fix for this one – no juice in bottles, and limit the milk (or try unsweetened almond or coconut milk as a substitute – they have no sugar). These solutions have far more to do with healthy eating choices than the apparatus your child chooses to drink from occasionally.

5. They need to get off the bottle before they get old enough to fight you on it. There seems to be this idea out there that the minute kids turn a year, certain things are okay, and others are bad. Just because she’s hit the 12-month mark, now she can have whole milk rather than formula/breastmilk. Honey can be deadly at 11 months and 26 days, but not a few days later, The AAP needs to set out guidelines, but every child is different – and just because your baby’s peers are ready to give up bottles at a year doesn’t mean your baby necessarily is. Feeding time is bonding time for many of us, bottle feeders and breastfeeders alike. My kids knew that bottles = a special time when you are held, kissed, and talked to. As they grew more autonomous and held their own bottles, they still allowed me to hold them and cuddle them while they drank – even at stages when getting them to stay still long enough for a stolen kiss was a feat of epic proportions.

I’m a realist, and I know that at this point, Fearlette’s love for the silicone nipple has more to do with the sucking action than the woman on the other end of it. And it probably has a lot to do with her stubborn streak as well (mommy says I have to give up bottles, so I’m going to do the polar opposite, because I’m a badass). But I’m sure that if I were breastfeeding, and she still wanted to nurse every now and then when she was upset or overwhelmed, I’d let her. Mind you, that’s just me, and my style of parenting. I like to let my kids take the lead on almost everything. This is simply because I am lazy and a pushover, not because I subscribe to any parenting theory that preaches autonomy or what have you. I am more than a little in awe of those of you who simply throw the bottles out one morning and never look back, and I do wish I could be that strong.

But after my experience with FC, I have confidence that most kids know when they are ready to do something, and Fearlette is just not ready. On a daily basis, I am gently trying to encourage her to use a cup, but I realize that in her mind, cups and bottles are not one and the same. A cup is something you drink liquids out of, to quench thirst. A bottle is a source of comfort, and she’s in the midst of a scary and overwhelming time in her life. It’s not easy being 17 months old.

This post turned far more personal than I intended it to be, but what I want to impart to you is that extended bottle feeding is totally okay, as long as you follow the same healthy bottle-feeding habits you always have. Every child is different, and there is nothing wrong with tapering the bottle usage off slowly and humanely. And I promise you that one day, your child will confidently hand you that last bottle on his second/third/fourth/twenty-fifth birthday and tell you he doesn’t need it anymore.

I’m only kidding about the twenty-fifth birthday.

Although I should be careful, because Fearlette does have a rather sick sense of humor….

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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