I often get asked, “When is a good time to drop my baby’s night feed?” As you know, all babies are different, but I am going to share some guidelines and considerations to make the decision on ending middle-of-the-night feeds.
Many babies become accustomed to nursing to sleep or falling asleep on the bottle. To them, it is just one of the steps along the way to get to sleep, and they have a difficult time falling asleep without it.
Feeding on Demand
If you are feeding on demand, which is a popular approach and one that I fully support if it works well for you and your baby. If baby is waking up four times a night to eat, the principle of feeding on demand would require you to feed for the wake ups.
However, if baby is six months of age, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat all of their calories during the day, then chances are that baby is not waking up each time for food. The most common reason babies wake up in the night past the six month mark is because they become accustomed to feeding to drowsiness or sleep, which becomes their strategy to fall asleep.
As adults, we also have strategies we use to get to sleep. We might put a glass of water by our nightstand, turn on a fan, read a book, or get into our most comfortable sleeping position. All of these strategies we use get to sleep puts a signal in our brains and bodies that it’s time for sleep.
Babies sleep strategies serve the same purpose. Once baby is in a familiar, comfortable place, where their system recognizes it is time to sleep, they drift off.
So if feeding to sleep is part of the strategy, it does not matter if food is actually being provided, but it’s more of the sucking motion, the comfort of mom next to them, the familiar situation, that helps get them to sleep, where this can become dependent.
Obviously, every baby is different and some may actually still need to eat at night, but with that in mind, here are some indicators to let you know if the wake ups are the result of hunger or lack of independent sleep skills:
- Does baby only take a small amount when they are feeding at night?
- Do they fall asleep after a few minutes into the feed?
- Does baby eventually go back to sleep if they do not receive a feed?
- Does baby wake up 45 minutes to 1 hour after their initial bedtime feed?
If you answered yes to most of those, then your little one most likely falls into the “feeding to sleep” strategy and could benefit from learning more independent sleep skills to get that healthy uninterrupted sleep at night. This does not mean you need to end feeding on demand, but simply reassessing when baby is really hungry vs. using the motion to get to sleep.
At around six months, your baby may be ready to start sleeping through the night and can go through the night without needing to eat, receiving all calories during the day. But age is not the only factor when deciding if it’s time to drop night feeds. Here are some other considerations:
Always check with your pediatrician first, before you decide to pull night feeds. If your baby is not gaining weight or the growth chart is not on track according to your pediatrician, then I would not recommend dropping the feed. However, if your baby is putting on the pounds, they may be ready for consolidated nights of sleep.
Preliminary considerations before deciding to wean:
- Baby is > 13 lbs
- Approval from pediatrician
- Baby continues to gain weight
- Baby is taking full feeds
Most healthy 6 + month old babies on a normal growth curve do not need to eat throughout the night.
“if baby is six months of age, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat all of their calories during the day, then chances are that baby is not waking up each time for food. “
Sporadic Wake Ups
If your baby is waking up around the same times every night, chances are, she is hungry. If she wakes up erratically at unpredictable times, it is most likely because she wants help falling back to sleep.
This can be a great time to start teaching baby how to fall asleep independently. Chance are, she has enough nourishment during the day to get her through the night, but she is coming to the end of her sleep cycle. Out of habit, she is looking for a familiar routine, which may involve feeding to sleep.
In many cases working with families, once a baby learns how to fall asleep independently, they naturally wean off night feeds, without any intervention from parents. This is not always the situation, but putting an end to the feed to sleep association, when babies learns how to fall asleep on their own, leads to less wake ups, if any.
Teaching her to fall asleep without the props at bedtime can provide everyone with some solid night sleep.
Not Eating Much at Night
One of the most common signs a baby is ready to end night feeds is when she wakes up, feeds a little, then tries to initiate some play. This can be confusing to parents, who can’t understand why baby is crying but only eats a small amount.
The majority of the time, it is because baby was not hungry in the first place and feeding is the way she knows how to get back to sleep.
Eating Less During the Day
If your baby’s daytime feeds are taking a dip, it is a good sign that they are getting the calories they need and you can adjust their feeding schedule a bit. If you encourage her to eat more during the day, it will be easier to pull the night feeds, switching the cycle, where baby gets her calories during the day, as opposed to night.
It can take a night or two for your baby to adjust and not feel hungry at their regular feeding times, but after this, they should be sleeping through and getting that healthy consolidated sleep.
I always advise nursing moms to pump once or twice once when weaning or dropping night feeds until her body is used to the change of not feeding throughout the night.
Ready to Remove
Night weaning is a big step for baby and mommy.
When you are ready to pull the night feed, the key is consistency and preparation. You will want to have a specific plan to be prepared with how you will respond when baby does cry out and you are no longer offering a feed. Respond consistently for each wake up, until at least 6:00 am, when it is considered morning and time to begin your day.
Set a plan of what night you want to start. Don’t panic if your baby does not take a good bedtime feed. This can sometimes happen on the first night. Squeeze in an extra feed or two during the day. If baby is breastfed at night and your partner or another caregiver is available to respond to baby the first two nights, that can be helpful.
If you do not want to do this alone and would like a clear plan of action on how to handle night wake ups when you are no longer offering a feed, with guided support every step of the way, let’s talk.