Most babies can sleep pretty much through the night by 6 months, but one of the main reasons why they don’t is because they develop a milk/sleep association. This happens if 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.
Feeding and sleeping are very closely connected for babies – especially in the early weeks, and you can feed them to sleep without having them develop feeding as a sleep association until they are around 3 months.
When your baby was younger, if they had a full tummy, it meant that they would sleep for longer and so feeding them to sleep is the right and natural thing to do.
When they are older, having a tummy that is very full of milk is less important. They need to be generally well nourished & hydrated during the day and not hungry when they go to sleep of course. But the main things that determine the quality of their sleep now are:
- The way that they fall asleep
- Whether they are expecting any nighttime events to happen.
It’s okay to feed your baby during the night for as long as you want to, especially when you are breastfeeding, and you should never feel under pressure to stop if it is something that both you and your baby enjoy. When you’re ready to stop, however, I have some tips on how to safely do it.
- Wait until they are around 7kg. At this weight, it is okay for their bodies to rest for up to 12 hours at night.
- If you haven’t already done it, introduce a familiar series of steps leading up to bedtime [a bedtime routine] timed to coincide with when you know your baby is tired and ready to sleep.
- Keep the bedroom light on for that bedtime feed, and don’t let your baby doze off. 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.
- Introduce a little picture book or song after the feed and before your babygoesinto the cot.This will further help to break the milk/sleep connection responsible for babies waking later and needing another feed to settle.
- Turn the light off now and place your baby into the cot whilst they are clearly awake.
- Depending on their temperament and your parenting style, either stay with them, comforting them in the cot or pop in and out frequently but briefly to reassure them.
- Be patient and give them time. If your baby has been used to feeding to sleep, they may 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.
- 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, they shouldn’t need a drink, but it’s fine to offer some water if you feel they need it.
- Although it is fine to drop the night feeds all at once in healthy babies over the age of six months; if you’re nervous about doing this, it is OK to gradually dilute night formula feeds and/or to cut the duration of night breastfeeds. You need, for the sake of consistency to feed your baby a decreasing amount of milk at each waking. Feeding at some wakings and not at others will only confuse them.
- Try not to confuse them by withholding or restricting night feeds and then giving a big, sleepy 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, doctor or other health care provider.
In one of the boxes above, I’ve said that feeding a baby sometimes when they wake and sometimes not can cause confusion. This isn’t the case when they are younger but as they grow up and their thinking develops, they can struggle to figure out why sometimes they get the feed response to their waking and other times they don’t. With this in mind, it’s best to drop them all at once if you can or feed them every time they ask for it but give smaller amounts.
Here’s a guide if you want to feed them at each waking but gradually reduce the amount before stopping:
I know that the issue of night feeding, especially night breastfeeding is a sensitive one for many people and there are strong feelings involved. I would always encourage parents to follow their instincts and values.
Also, if you’re breastfeeding, don’t think that if you do decide to drop the night breastfeeds, you have to stop breastfeeding altogether. By 6 months your milk supply is well enough established for your body to make milk mainly for the daytime, when it is most needed!