When to Bottle Wean?
Updated: Mar 28, 2022
We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that our babies are properly nourished, but there comes a time when night bottles become a habit versus hunger.
Determining whether your baby’s hungry at night is often a complicated situation. Children cry because they’re uncomfortable, have a dirty diaper, feel too hot or too cold, or because of hunger. So when they wake up in the middle of the night and they start crying, it’s tough to determine whether it’s because they need to eat or because they just want to see mom back in the room.
More common than not, babies develop a dependency on baby bottles. Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we typically end up paralyzed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is immeasurably easier to walk once you’ve taught your baby the skills they need to fall asleep on their own. For some children, it’s not something they can easily overcome. But once the habit of feeding to sleep is broken, you can feel much more confident that their requests for a nighttime feed are out of necessity and not just a way of grabbing a few extra minutes with mom.
Why You Should Bottle-Wean Your Child at Night
Waiting for your child to naturally kick the habit might not always go as planned. There are a few good reasons to bottle wean before the habit becomes filled with toddler-sized emotions.
Baby Bottle Syndrome leads to increased risk for tooth decay or Early Childhood Caries which has lasting detrimental impact on both primary and permanent teeth.
Decreased growth can result from a child preferring their baby bottle over solid food intake.
Snack feeds/bottles can lead to excessive weight gain during infant years.
Lack of emotional regulation can be seen when a baby bottle becomes the main source of comfort, just as pacifiers do. Teaching children other means of comfort instead of eating/drinking is all part of learning how to deal with big emotions.
When to Bottle Wean Your Child at Night
A few things to consider when you’re trying to determine when to begin nighttime bottle weaning:
1. Is baby under 6 months of age?
Some infants sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age, but generally speaking, you can expect to be summoned for a nighttime feed up until baby’s hit about six months. 9-12 months of age is generally when children are recommended to bottle wean. More often then not, older infants are more strong willed, making it that much harder to wean.
Before you attempt to make any changes to your baby’s feeding schedule, talk to your pediatrician. Nighttime sleep is awesome but calories are essential. If your little one is underweight or not growing as fast as they should be, it might not be a good time to wean out night feedings, so again, chat with your doctor.
2. Is baby eating enough during the day?
Once baby’s capable of sleeping through the night without a feed, you need to make sure they’re getting the calories they need during their daytime hours. The best way I’ve found to make this switch is to throw in an extra feed during the day, or by adding an ounce or two to each bottle throughout the day. This is also a great time to think about introducing solid foods if age appropriate. The good news here is that baby’s body will typically adjust over a night or two to start taking in those additional calories during the daytime once they’re no longer getting them at night.
3. Is baby falling asleep quickly when you feed them?
Babies who are genuinely hungry will usually eat until they’re full during a night waking, whereas those who are feeding for comfort tend to fall asleep quickly while feeding. This often means baby is not getting a full feed at night, but rather using the baby bottle to get back to sleep.
4. Does baby sleep for a good stretch after feeding?
If baby does take a full feed at night, she should be able to sleep for around 3-4 hours afterwards. An average sleep cycle for babies around the 6 month mark is somewhere in the 45minute - 1 hour range, so if they’re waking up around that long after they eat, it’s likely that they’re dependent on the sucking and soothing actions of your bottle routine to get to sleep.
5. Will baby go back to sleep without a feed?
If your baby really is hungry, they usually won’t go back to sleep very easily until they’ve been fed. If they nod off after five or ten minutes of crying, that’s a pretty reliable sign that they were just looking for some help getting back to sleep and not actually in need of a feed.
6. Does baby fall asleep independently?
If you can put your baby down in her crib while she’s still awake, leave the room, and have baby fall asleep without any help from you, without a pacifier, or any other kind of outside assistance, then those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that she genuinely needs a feed or something is not right.
How To Wean the Night Bottles
Once you've gotten past the night bottles (usually via gradual weaning or cutting it cold turkey), it doesn't mean you need to stop giving formula or breastmilk during the day. The difference is using an alternative delivery method other than the baby bottle. With my 14+ years of being a dental hygienist and now a sleep consultant, I can confidently say that one of the best ways to do so is to transition your child to an open cup or straw cup. Believe it or not, this can help that night weaning process too! (I've had a client whose baby fell back asleep at night just from the very sight of the straw cup instead of their baby bottle!)
Transitional Cup Options
1. Straw Cup
Straw cups allow for proper tooth and dental arch development without compromising convenience. Some children may find using a straw initially challenging, but I've found huge success with Philips Avent Straw Cups. For children who have mastered the straw, I've found my favourite pastel coloured straw training straw cup on Happy Baby's online store. they're perfect sized for little hands and is made out silicone instead of the plastic ones usually found in store.
2. Sippy Cup
Although typically an easier transition for kids as compared to the straw cup, sippy cups may risk impeding upon your child's proper dental arch formation and increase the risk for tooth decay. Like the baby bottle, children using sippy cups often suck on them for long periods of time, which means it may also need to be weaned in the future.
3. Open Cup
Posing the least dental risk, most children are successful upon the first try with an open cup (but not without creating a mess)! It's all about practicing with the open cup to bypass this messy stage. Pro tip: hold the cup for/with your child, place a cloth under their chin to catch the dribble while gently tipping your child's chin upward to help them learn the motion of drinking from a cup. Once your child understands this concept, you can trust them to do it without your guiding hands. Happy Baby has the cutest pastel coloured silicone cups that are double handled. Double handles are a sure must for reducing spills.
Don't be disappointed if you child is unsuccessful at first or seems to be disinterested initially. Offer regularly the transitional cup of your choosing and praise your child for their attempts.
And, as always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, I’ve got you covered.