Getting up to feed your baby at night goes hand in hand with parenting, and as tiring as it can be, many moms and dads enjoy the opportunity those late night feeds provide for extra cuddling and bonding with their baby. Eventually though, even the most dedicated parents look forward to getting longer stretches of sleep for their baby (and for themselves!)
If you’re lucky, your baby will naturally start to sleep for longer and longer stretches at night without waking up to eat. But some babies will continue to wake up often – not because they still need the nighttime calories – but because they’re used to receiving them. These wake ups may also be driven by an “eat to sleep” association, which means that baby requires the bottle or the breast to fall asleep throughout the night. If your baby is eating at night out of habit, not necessity, you may want to consider gently reducing or eliminating those extra feeds.
NOTE: The decision to reduce night time feedings should be based on realistic expectations about your baby’s ability to go for longer stretches and how you feel about night time feeding in general. If feeding your baby is working well, don’t feel pressured to eliminate feeds just because someone else is telling you that you should. You’ll know when the time is right, and when it is you can implement the following strategy.
DETERMINE HOW MANY NIGHTTIME FEEDS YOUR BABY REALLY NEEDS
Although every baby is different, the breakdown below can give you an idea of what typical feeding patterns look like for healthy babies during the first year. These numbers are just averages – if your baby is eating less than the average amount at night but is healthy and growing well, don’t worry! Also, keep in mind that if your baby was born pre-maturely, isn’t growing well, or has an underlying medical condition they may need more than the average number of feeds.
0 to 3 months of age – on demand
3 to 4 months of age – 3 – 4 feeds per night
4 to 6 months of age – 1 – 2 feeds per night
6 to 9 months of age – 1 feed or no feeds per night
9 to 12 months of age – parent’s choice
Always check with your pediatrician before you decide to make any changes to your child’s current feeding patterns, and if you’re breastfeeding, speak with a lactation professional if you have any concerns about managing your supply.
DETERMINE HOW MUCH YOUR BABY IS ACTUALLY EATING AT NIGHT
Take a look at your babies night time feeding patterns. True feeds involve substantial caloric intake. If your baby is taking two or more ounces from the bottle per feed or actively nursing for more than four or five minutes per feed you can consider this to be a true feed. If, on the other hand, your baby only nurses for a few minutes or takes less than two ounces from the bottle, they aren’t receiving substantial calories and you can consider those to be comfort or sleep associated feeds. It’s important also to consider that even if your baby is only “snacking” all night long, all of those little one or two ounce feeds can add up to quite a lot of calories! If this is the case with your baby, you may want to start by choosing one or two times during the night that you’ll offer the bottle or the breast and then reduce from there once your baby is sleeping well between those feeds.
DECIDE WHICH FEED TO REDUCE FIRST
Because babies takes their deepest sleep during the first part of the night, it can be helpful to start reducing your baby’s earliest feed first, simply because they may fall back to sleep more easily at that hour. For example, if your baby is feeding at 11:00 pm, 2:00 am and 5:00 am, the 11:00 pm feed would be a sensible place to start.
If, however, the 11 pm feed is easy for you (let’s say you don’t go to bed until midnight) and it’s challenging for you to get up at 2:00 am, you may want to start reducing the 2:00 am feeding first. Either approach is viable, and either way both you and your baby will eventually be getting longer stretches of sleep. Just keep in mind that it may take a bit more work for your baby to fall back to sleep during the early morning hours because they’re in lighter stages of sleep at that time.
NOTE: Expect that your feeding schedule may shift or change a bit as your baby drops a feed – for example, if you drop the 11:00 pm feed your baby may wake up at 1:00 am instead of 2:00 am. for their next meal. The same is true if you eliminate the 2:00 am feed – your baby may begin to wake at 4:00 am instead of 5:00 am. Be sure to let your baby eat as much as they want during the feeds that you’re planning to keep. A full tummy will help your baby to stay asleep until the next scheduled feed.
FOCUS ON OFFERING PLENTY OF DAYTIME CALORIES
When reducing night feeds it’s more important be sure that your baby is getting enough calories during the day. Check with your pediatrician about how much your baby should be eating during the day, and be sure that they are good, nutritive feeds. If your baby seems hungrier during the day when you start shifting calories you can offer another feed or offer more bottle or breast time throughout the day. Remember that the goal is sufficient caloric intake during the day so that your baby doesn’t need to receive those calories at night.
Stopping feeds cold turkey is never a good idea, even for toddlers and pre-schoolers who are used to eating at night – it’s the equivalent of skipping a meal and almost always results in a miserable night for everyone! Reducing gently will allow your baby’s body to adjust gradually, over time. This is also the best approach for breast feeding moms because it allows supply to adjust gradually, and reduces the risk of engorgement.
For bottle fed babies:
When your baby wakes, feed them as you always do, but offer a half ounce or full ounce less each night or every other night until they’re only taking two ounces at that feeding. Depending on how many ounces your baby has been taking at that feed, you can usually accomplish this in a week or so. If your baby notices the reduction and starts to fuss you have a choice – you can either use other soothing techniques like rocking to lull them back to sleep or use a sleep coaching strategy that allows them to put themselves back. Remember that some babies are ready to drop feeds before they’re ready for sleep training. Get the green light from your pediatrician before you attempt to sleep train your baby and remember that learning sleep skills starts with bedtime – if your child doesn’t know how to put themselves to sleep when you put them down at bedtime, you can’t expect them to be able do it in the middle of the night.
For breast fed babies:
When your baby wakes, feed your baby as you always do, but reduce the number of minutes you nurse every night or every other night. Depending on how long you usually nurse, you can reduce between 30 seconds and two minutes each night until you’re down to three or four minutes of nursing for that feed. Again, if your baby notices the reduction and fusses you can use a sleep training strategy or other soothing techniques like rocking to help resettle back to sleep.
Once the first feed has been eliminated (and if your baby is ready) you can start working on the next feed, and then the next feed, etc.
Alison Bevan is a Baby and Child Sleep Consultant that has helped thousands of families get a good night’s sleep.
She is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach SM, founder of Sleepytime Coach and the Pediatric Sleep Consultant at The Center For Advanced Pediatrics, one of the largest and most comprehensive pediatric practices in the tri-state area. She is also a mother that has lived through the challenges of having a child with sleep problems.