Dropping feedings at night

Baby drinking a bottle in mothers arms

Every baby is different, and sleeping through the night is a perfect example.  This milestone happens early for some babies while others continue to wake a few times per night even up to their first birthday and beyond.  Before you assume that your baby’s nighttime habits are ‘wrong’, think about what works best for you and your infant. If waking up a few times per night to feed works for you, then continue. If you feel lack-of-sleep is affecting you or your child adversely, you may consider weaning some or all of the nighttime feeds.  Do what works best for you and your little one.

Should you decide that nighttime weaning is your goal, the first thing to ensure is that your baby is gaining weight appropriately.  Next, think about why your baby is waking at night. Hunger, teething, developmental advances, illness, introduction of solids, sleep regressions, reflux, and habit are all reasons it may be happening.  Some of these are short-lived and your baby may go back to, or begin to drop, nighttime wake-ups as they are resolved.  Others, such as reflux, may take changes to diet, sleep position, or medication to help correct.  If you think your baby has reflux or another medical concern, be sure to talk with his health care provider for support.

Once you identify and possibly eliminate any discomfort that may be waking your baby, you now want to ensure that he is well fed before bed:

  • Minimize distractions during feeding during the day to ensure he is getting enough milk
  • Breast or bottle feed more frequently throughout the day
  • Feed a couple times in the hours before bed to ‘tank up’

Next, look at the sleeping environment and routine to determine if modifications are needed to encourage better sleep:

  • Aim to put your infant to bed before he’s overly tired. Once too tired, it may take longer to settle him down.
  • Wean off co-sleeping, or sleeping in the same room. Sometimes babies wake more often when they sense mom is near. If co-sleeping, it may be the right time to slowly get your baby accustomed to sleeping in a different room or in a separate crib. (See: “Which Sleep Positions are Safe for your Baby” for safe sleep guidelines)
  • Minimize light and sound. Some babies go to bed before the sun is down. Daylight or too much sound may make it more difficult for your infant to fall asleep and stay asleep.

*Please see “How to help your baby sleep well at night” and “How to teach your baby to sleep in the crib” for more information.

Finally, when he wakes during the feed you’d like to drop:

  • If possible, get another parent to go in to soothe. This way baby won’t expect to be fed.
  • Let baby self-soothe. If the sounds are simply babbling or gently fussing, you may decide to not go in for five minutes, to see if he is able to fall back asleep on his own.
  • If you do go in, try to avoid talking, picking up, rocking, direct eye contact, or turning on the light to avoid waking further.  Rub his back, head or belly, provide his ‘lovey’, change diaper if necessary, then leave the room. Repeat as needed.

What about engorgement?

If you are breastfeeding, it typically takes some time for your body to adjust to the new schedule.  Try to avoid pumping during the feed you are trying to drop as your body will continue to make milk in response.  Waiting until the next feed is optimal, but if you are very uncomfortable try expressing a bit of milk to relieve the pressure.  It will take a few days, but your breasts will stop overfilling at that time.  It may be important to wear breast pads to avoid leakage during this time. Stopping the one feed should not affect milk production at other feeding times.

If your goal is to drop all nighttime feeds, start with just one feed and progress to the next once your baby is well adapted. Working on one at a time will lessen stress for both you and your baby, as well as provide a gradual and methodical weaning period.

What to Do

Myth: Feeding formula or cereal in a bottle before bed will help baby sleep longer.

Many previous generations have told their daughters to give formula, or feed cereal in a bottle, before bed to help baby sleep longer. However, there is no evidence that either of these help. In fact, there is some data suggesting that these methods may make some babies sleep more poorly, especially if baby is younger than six months.

Try the techniques listed in this article to help your baby drop a feeding and in turn sleep longer.  Some babies will respond within a few days and be sleeping through that feed without much intervention while others may take a bit longer to adjust. Try to stay the course and not give in to your baby’s habitual desire to eat as doing so may send mixed signals and make the feed harder to eliminate.

‘Tanking up’ before bed

Babies older than two months may get fairly distracted while feeding; pulling off to look at other sights and sounds. This may lead to them eating less at each feed, causing additional hunger later in the day or night. Try feeding in a quiet place with minimal distractions to help baby eat his fill at every session.

Avoid creating new habits in place of feeding

Allowing baby to self-soothe and learn to fall back asleep on his own is ideal. Give yourself a specific amount of time that you’ll allow baby to fuss before going in to help. This way you will be providing structure and routine while phasing out the night time wake up.  Many people will wait five minutes, unless baby’s cries are more serious.

When you do go in, try to avoid picking baby up and/or rocking him back to sleep, unless baby is truly crying. This might create a new sleep-disrupting habit that will need to be broken as well. Keep the light off, try not to speak, and rub his tummy, back, or head until he is calmed or asleep. If you like, set a time limit on the soothing if you find you’re in there for long periods.

If you must pick him up, try to put him back in the crib still awake so that he does not depend on you to fall back asleep.