How to wean your older baby off night feeds and help them to better sleep

Do you have a baby that wakes up lots of times in the night when other babies of his or her age seem to sleep through the night with no trouble at all? If the answer is yes, then it might be because you are continuing night breast or bottle feeds when your baby no longer needs them.

It might surprise you to know that most babies are able to sleep pretty much through the night by 3 months and virtually ALL babies of 6 months are technically capable of sleeping through. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see your baby enjoy the pleasure of a solid 10 – 12 hours of blissful, restorative sleep?

One of the main reasons why babies who have reached the maturity to sleep through, continue to wake during the night is that they are fed to sleep at the start of the night and/or are used to the ritual of a feed when they wake up during the night. Even if you just feed your baby once during the night, he or she may wake up and cry many times before and after the feed is due, simply wondering if it is time for milk.

As a loving parent, you instinctively want to calm your child, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is by feeding. There comes a point, however when night feeding works against your baby having a peaceful sleep. For most babies this is when they reach a body weight of around 7kg, or are 6 months old. By this age, they need a bed time feed only and then they should go for up to 12 hours until they enjoy their morning feed.

With an older baby, boosting their blood sugar and keeping their digestive system busy during the night, does not aid restful sleep.

So you should not feel guilty about helping your baby to drop these unnecessary night feeds. Try the following action plan:

  1. If you haven’t already done so, introduce a familiar series of steps leading up to bed time [a bed time routine] to coincide with when you know your baby is tired and ready to sleep.
  2. Do not allow them to fall asleep at the beginning of the night over the bed time feed. You may have to limit the duration if you’re breastfeeding or reduce the feed if they are on the bottle. Don’t worry – your older baby’s quality of sleep no longer depends upon how full their tummy is.
  3. If you struggle to keep your baby awake for their last feed of the day, you can try giving it earlier or feeding in a different location. Always keep the light on, as feeding in the dark will encourage an unhelpful milk/sleep association.
  4. Introduce a little picture book or song after the feed and before your baby goes into the cot. This will further help to break the milk/sleep connection responsible for babies’ waking later and needing another feed to settle.
  5. Turn the lights down now and place you baby into the cot whilst they are clearly awake.
  6. Depending on their temperament and your own parenting style, either stay with them, comforting them in the cot or pop in and out frequently but briefly to reassure them.
  7. Be patient and give them time. If your baby has been used to feeding to sleep, they may really struggle at first with self settling. There is no rush – it might take an hour or so but if you let them, they will eventually fall asleep without you feeding them. Try to remain calm and reassuring if your baby is upset. Remember that they are getting used to a change and although it won’t be easy for the first night or two, it will be worth it in the long run.
  8. If your baby wakes in the night, you should go and check them but not give a feed. Comfort them in the cot as you did earlier if they are upset. Provided that they are well hydrated in the daytime and are not unwell, there is no need to give a drink of water.
  9. Although it is usually advisable to drop the night feeds all at once in healthy, well fed babies over the age of six months; if you’re nervous about doing this, it OK to gradually dilute night formula feeds and/or to cut the duration of night breast feeds. You need, for the sake of consistency to feed your baby a decreasing amount of milk at each waking.
  10. If you are following the more gradual route, you need to always place your baby into the cot after the reduced feed, whilst they are still awake and settle them there rather than allowing them to suck to sleep or fall asleep in your arms.
  11. Try not to confuse them by withholding or restricting night feeds; having them cry, and then allowing them to fall asleep over a feed at dawn. They can’t tell the time yet, and as far as they are concerned, this is a night feed.

Just to say, that this is a guide. Each baby is different of course, and if you’re unsure, you should discuss your baby’s need for night feeds with your health visitor.

Copyright Andrea Grace