Ah, the sweetness of snuggling your little baby against you in the dark to breastfeed or bottle feed as she drifts off to sleep. There's nothing quite like it.
But as your baby (or toddler) gets bigger and heavier and continues to want those snuggles and nighttime feedings, your arms and your sleep-deprived brain may no longer appreciate those moments quite so much.
Does this sound like you? Do you feel guilty about wishing you could get more uninterrupted sleep?
The guilt is normal. And so is the need for better sleep. Rest assured, your baby needs better sleep, too, once she is out of the newborn period.
For the first six weeks, most pediatric providers recommend your baby have unlimited access to breastmilk or formula. I would add that even in those first weeks, if your baby has recently eaten (less than 90 minutes prior) and you are confident that he had a good feeding -- drank several ounces from the bottle or your breasts are noticeably more empty -- you don't need to offer food again right away if your baby begins to fuss. In that scenario, he is probably tired, not hungry. Try putting him to sleep with other comforts, such as a pacifier, rocking, walking (in the stroller or baby carrier or your arms), white noise, swaddling, or even just laying him in his bed and gently patting and shushing him. It's not too early to teach him self-soothing. It may actually make future sleep training uneccesary!
If he is unable to put himself to sleep without nursing or bottle feeding, that's fine. Keep trying, at least once a day. He'll get it eventually.
After about six weeks adjusted age (from the due date), you can expect that your baby will begin to have a longer stretch of sleep. It usually starts as about a 4-6 hours stretch and is usually at the beginning of the night. Her bedtime will move earlier around the same time. I encourage you to go to bed when she does, to make the most of that longer stretch. After that one longer stretch, she will likely wake every few hours to eat.
By 4 months old, you can expect 0-2 feedings per night. If you are enjoying feeding your baby at night, that's great, no need to change anything! If you want to start cutting back on feedings, that's fine too. I recommend a gentle approach of gradually reducing the feeding volume or time (if breastfeeding) at the earlier feeding first. Only start to eliminate the later feeding when the first one has successfully been eliminated. Once a feeding has been eliminated, try not to offer a feeding at that time again. Try other methods of soothing first. Of course you'll want to confirm with your pediatric healthcare provider before beginning night weaning.
By 9 months old, your baby no longer needs a feeding at night (assuming your healthcare provider doesn't have a concern about her weight). But if you and she are both enjoying a night feeding, there's no reason you need to eliminate it quite yet. I do, however, encourage you to put her down awake at bedtime, at least. If she always nurses or bottle feeds to sleep, she won't know how to put herself back to sleep alone and will need your help every time she wakes up. It's normal for people of all ages to wake momentarily between sleep cyles -- we do this too, but it's so brief we don't remember it -- and we want her to know how to go back to sleep when this happens.
After about a year of age, I recommend that parents night-wean because of the risk of cavities when a toddler has milk on his teeth during the night. Seeing a two-year-old get multiple fillings in his teeth would be traumatizing for any parent. I think it's easier to save the nursing or the bottle for the morning. It's fine to offer a sip of water if your baby wakes up during the night, though.
Please also make sure you don't put your baby in the crib with a bottle of milk as this is a risk for cavities, too, as well as a risk for ear infections.
It's wonderful to continue nursing or having a cup or bottle of milk at bedtime after the first birthday, though! Just make sure to brush those tiny teeth before bed. By this age, I recommend you incorporate a story and a song, or some other consistent screen-free ritual, to help your child learn to anticipate bedtime. By doing the same thing every night, your child is able to prepare for the upcoming separation from you and is less anxious. (Some separation anxiety at this age is normal but when we do things like this, we lessen it.)
If your child is past one and is still bottle or breast feeding to sleep, don't panic. Just work on moving the feeding earlier in the evening and putting your baby in bed awake.
It's normal for little ones to protest a change like this in the routine. Parents often worry about their little ones crying at a time like this. But it's perfectly natural for her to dislike the change... and it is very healthy for her to express her feelings.
An important part of parenting is sympathetically supporting children while they express their feelings about our consistent boundaries. Just like insisting on car seats and tooth brushing, sometimes we do things that children don't like. It's part of being a parent. Our children will not be traumatized by loving, clear limits. And the good news is that if you are consistent, your child will quickly adjust to the new routine and her protests will end. It's when we are inconsistent that things are much more confusing and challenging for children.
Night weaning sounds simple but the emotional aspect of it can be challenging for parents. I am here to help. Set up a free consultation and look forward to great sleep for the entire family.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.