Bottle Weaning – Breaking a Bedtime Crutch for Good

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  • January 25, 2017
bottle weaning bedtime crutch

bottle weaning bedtime crutch

There are so many factors that affect baby and toddler sleep. If your toddler (or even preschooler) is using a bottle at naps, bedtime, or to re-settle overnight, then he or she might be using it as their sleep crutch. If you notice that your toddler is also asking for the bottle when they are upset or tired, then the bottle may have also become a comfort item in addition to their sleep crutch. Tough as it may be, it could be time to say “bye-bye” to the bottle, day and night. If your child is between 12 and 15 months, it is a great time to set the goal of bottle weaning. Here’s why:

Toddlers are more likely to get attached to things between 15 and 18 months.

They swing back and forth between flouting their independence and clinging to you. A child this age explores at a short distance from mom or dad. There are times when he’ll want to stay nearby, especially if he’s tired, sick, or scared. And not only will he seek the safety of your lap, he may hang on for dear life to a familiar and comforting object—like his bottle.

In many cases the bottle has become a lovey. A toddler who’s still attached to a bottle will only latch on tighter if you allow him to have it as a source of comfort during this critical period. It’s better to encourage other attachments, such as a blanket, stuffed animal, or toy.

RELATED: Every child needs a lovey

His budding pearly whites are at stake.

This is especially true if you let your child walk around with his bottle, drink from it between meals and snacks, or have it at bedtime without brushing his teeth before he nods off. Milk is full of sugars that can cling to budding teeth and cause decay. This can ultimately affect adult teeth as well. It’s even worse if he’s drinking juice from a bottle. Giving a bottle to a toddler at bedtime and letting him fall asleep before you brush his teeth is an invitation to decay. I’ve worked with many families whose children have developed cavities as young as 18 months and as old as 5 for same reason—they were still taking a bottle before bed.

It’ll ruin his appetite.

Many children over 12 months will fill up on milk if they take it from a bottle. For example, toddlers who are used to sucking down a 6 or 8-ounce bottle first thing in the morning aren’t likely to eat much breakfast. At this age, they need other foods besides milk to be nourished. Kids can also drink faster from a bottle than from a sippy cup, making it even easier to fill up. (If you’re worried that without a bottle your child isn’t getting enough calcium, speak to your pediatrician).

Bottle Weaning Eliminates a Bedtime Crutch.

A primary rule of encouraging healthy sleep habits bears repeating: it’s vital to teach your baby to drop off by himself, without needing to nurse, or be rocked—and you certainly don’t want him to rely on sucking on a bottle in order to get to sleep. Besides that, by a year a child should be able to sleep through the night easily without needing to “top off” his belly.

bottle weaning bedtime crutch

Bottle weaning can be difficult, but it will make bedtime easier in the long run

How to wean:

  • Check with your pediatrician or doctor.  As long as there isn’t a special circumstance, they will be able to give you the green light on bottle weaning.
  • Introduce a cup.  Ideally, you’ll have been giving your baby sips of milk from a cup by 6 to 9 months. If not, start giving him different kinds until you find one he likes. Some kids take to sippy cups right away, others prefer flip-up straws. Others don’t care what kind of cup it is as long as it’s blue, or green, or has puppies or princesses on it.
  • Eliminate the bottle, starting with lunch.  Lunch is the meal at which the bottle is probably least important to him. Instead, serve his milk in his now-favorite cup.
  • Take away the dinner bottle.  Once he’s used to having a cup at lunch, after around four to seven days, swap out the bottle for a cup at dinner.
  • Next tackle the morning bottle.  Instead of handing your toddler a bottle as soon as he gets up, go right to the table for breakfast.
  • Finally, let the bedtime bottle go.  If your child has had a good dinner—which may not be as much food as you might think—he doesn’t need extra milk to make it through the night. If he doesn’t need the bottle to put himself to sleep then you may be able to skip the bottle at this point, since he’s gotten used to doing without it during the day.

You might need to use sleep coaching

If you’ve made it to just the bedtime bottle and things stop going smoothly, take a graduated approach. Begin to reduce the amount of milk in the bedtime bottle by at least two ounces every two days. When you reach the three-ounce mark, offer a cup of water instead of a bottle during his bedtime routine.

This is where you may need to begin sleep coaching at bedtime.

If you’re convinced that your baby has to have milk before bed, then work toward serving that milk in a cup, and brushing his teeth before he goes to sleep. This will help his teeth and insure that he doesn’t need to suck to sleep— whether it’s a cup or a bottle. Some toddlers will replace their need for sucking a bedtime bottle with a cup, so be careful!

RELATED: Baby Sleep: The Upside to Routines

Eliminate all temptations

Throw away every bottle in the house as soon as your baby is weaned. Even the spares you keep tucked in the diaper bag and car should go. You don’t want your child to discover a left-over bottle months later and demand a fill-up. Then there’s no way to turn to a bottle out of desperation to calm a tantrum or get a baby to go back to sleep at 4 a.m.

What if your child is just too attached to the bottle?

Let’s say you missed the 15-month mark and suspect your older toddler (or preschooler) has developed an emotional attachment to his bottle. Here’s how you can tell:

  • The bottle is clearly his security object, or lovey.
  • He wants it when he’s tired, overstimulated, or anxious. He may even whine or throw a tantrum in order to get it.
  • She demands a certain beverage in it, and a certain amount.
  • Your child needs it to fall asleep.
  • He carries it around during the day.

To help a child who fits this description break his bottle habit, follow these steps:

  • Give him fair warning. Let him know three to five days in advance that it’s about time to give up his bottle. Tell him every day, at least twice a day. Pick a time when he’s not tired or about to go to sleep. Be calm, caring, confident, and positive.
  • Start minimizing bottles. During the period leading up to “D-Day”, reduce the number of bottles he has during the day as well as the amount of liquid in each. Some parents like to restrict the bottle to naptime and bedtime, or allow it only in certain rooms. When he’s in a bottle “mood,” distract him with a game or give him another form of comfort. Offer him a lovey instead of the bottle.
  • Gather the spares. Pick up any bottles you have scattered around the house, and stop stockpiling pre-filled bottles in the fridge. Perhaps your child will even help.
  • Tell a story. Some parents like to tell stories about giving away the bottles to babies in the hospital, the recycling center, the Easter bunny, etc. That’s okay, but you still owe it to your child to tell him in advance.
  • Make it official. On the big day, tell your child what you’re doing. Remind him that you’ve been talking about this for several days. Stay firm, and don’t waiver—even if he whines or throws a fit—but at the same time be comforting and encouraging.
  • Offer a special reward or treat.
  • Accept the possibility backsliding. Don’t be surprised if things go well for a few days, and then you hit a rough patch. Gently remind him that there aren’t any more bottles, and offer a kiss and cuddle, or a lovey instead.

Parenting is hard. Taking something away from your child, even when it’s for their own good, can be heartbreaking. If you set a goal and are consistent, you can gently bottle wean for better sleep.

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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