How to Wean Your Older Baby Off Night Feeds and Help Them to Better Sleep
By the time your baby reaches 6 months old, provided that they are healthy, gaining weight, and have started solid food, it is very possible that he or she no longer requires a night feed for nutritional reasons.
Lots of babies will drop night feeds without help once they reach a certain weight and when their sleep skills have matured. Many others, as they get older, will still feed once or twice in the night, and then settle happily back to sleep.
Some babies however, start to comfort feed every 1-2 hours all night, even though so many feeds are clearly nutritionally unnecessary. The reasons for this include:
- Needing to feed as a sleep prompt.
- Learned hunger.
- Habit and ritual.
Many parents choose to continue to breast feed in the night until their baby is over a year or no longer asks for it. This is absolutely fine of course, especially if they feel confident about and in control of that decision. It is ok to carry on breast feeding in the night for as long as you like. It is also ok to stop when you’ve had enough – especially if the disturbed nights are affecting your child’s mood or your own mental and/or physical health.
Although breast feeding at night helps to ensure a healthy milk supply for the following day; by the time your baby is 6 months old, your supply may be well enough established that your body will still make milk for the day time feeds. Breast milk production is about supply and demand. When the night feeds are dropped, the day feeds will increase and feeding on demand in the day will keep your milk supply up. If you’re returning to work and not intending to express milk to leave with a carer, your body will then simply make milk for the times when it is needed – even if that’s just for a morning and bed time feed.
As well as being not really necessary, very frequent night breast feeding can sometimes prevent babies developing essential self settling skills and can lead to daytime sleep problems too. All in all, you can run the risk of your baby becoming over tired and over dependent on you for all of their sleep needs. You may find yourself becoming extremely tired and run down and lacking the energy to cope with her increased mobility and need for activity and stimulation. You may also worry particularly about your baby’s ability to settle if you are preparing to return to work.
It is a shame, when you have done such a great job in breast feeding to find yourself confronted with these difficulties. You need to be clear in your own mind, however, that even if your baby does have a sleep problem related to breast feeding that you have given her the best. Nothing can take away those early benefits, both nutritional and emotional that you have given to her by feeding her yourself. You should not feel guilty if you want to drop the night feeds now.
So if you do feel its time to drop the feeds, here is how to safely do it:
- Wait until they are around 7kg. At this weight, it is ok for their bodies to have a rest for up to 12 hours at night.
- If you haven’t already done it, introduce a familiar series of steps leading up to bed time [a bed time routine] timed to coincide with when you know your baby is tired and ready to sleep.
- Keep the bedroom light on for that bed time 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 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.
- Turn the light off now and place you baby into the cot whilst they are clearly awake.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 its 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 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. Feeding at some wakings and not at others will only cause confusion.
- 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.