Sleep training is a bit of a charged topic in the parenting world. That’s something I didn’t know until I became a parent myself. In fact, I always had an idea about how I would put my infant to bed with a song, never let them sleep in my bed, and let’s not even get started on the picture-perfect nursery I imagined. Like so many parents before me and many that will come after me, that all flew out the window about a month in.
Getting your baby to sleep is more like trying to unlock a combination lock and you only have two of the numbers. There’s a rough idea, but every child is different and regardless of your approach, it inevitably requires tweaking. Why? Well, because kids change as fast as the weather.
The topic we’re addressing today, though, is the practice of putting your baby to sleep with the aid of a bottle. It’s so easy though! Yes, it is. They naturally fall asleep while drinking breastmilk or a warm bottle of formula from the dispenser because it’s comforting. They feel safe. However, that’s a very strong sleep association you’re forming, which is a problem when it’s time to ditch the bedtime bottle because of age or the emergence of baby teeth.
Whatever your views on sleep training or nursing to sleep, it’s hard to debate that bottle drinking to sleep eventually becomes a problem. Unlike nursing, milk from a bottle pools in your infant’s mouth and can contribute to poor dental health and ear infections. That’s why we’ve gathered some gentle suggestions on how to break the habit, as well as more information on why you might want to.
Before we get into it, here’s a bit of light-hearted advice from How to DAD on YouTube:
Should you break the night feed habit?
Most doctors will tell you that you need to put your baby to bed drowsy, but awake. They don’t advise nursing or bottle-feeding to sleep and establishing that as one of their sleep habits. That’s because once that connection is made, it becomes a struggle to initiate sleep without it.
Bottle feeding to sleep allows milk to pool in the mouth and can decay teeth when they come in. To get ready for that checkout this roundup of the best baby toothbrushes. Additionally, the fight that ensues when a bottle isn’t available or you’re just simply trying to break the habit, is a tough one.
Along with tooth decay and frustration, bottle feeding to sleep can be dangerous as babies are prone to choking while on their back. They’re also more likely to get ear infections as the milk pools in their mouth/throat and can flow into their developing ear cavities.
One misconception about babies, especially newborns, is that they can and should sleep through the night. Often, people (even experts), will say that bottle feeding until sleep contributes to frequent waking. In truth, babies are designed to wake frequently through the night and those that do so are at a lower risk of SIDS. It’s important to remember that bottle-feeding to sleep has risks, but frequent waking in the middle of the night is normal. So, don’t feel tempted to continue with a bottle at bedtime because it likely won’t lead to more sleep and has its own potential dangers.
With that being said, breastfeeding isn’t necessarily associated with the same kind of risks. These facts are only addressing bottle feeding. If you are doing a combination of both (more people do than you’d think), it could be worthwhile to lean on nursing when it’s bedtime.
How to break the night feed (helpful suggestions)
A bedtime routine is imperative for setting the stage for sleep. Even parents that don’t necessarily lean on schedules tend to have their own versions of bedtime routines. Often, that includes a warm bath, pajamas, and a story (or cuddle time). Whatever works and signals to your child that sleep is coming is ideal. If you do a bottle, try another activity afterward to keep him or her awake until it is time to lie down.
Swap the bottle (if your baby is 6 months+)
If you’re in the middle of transitioning to a sippy cup (straw cups are recommended) anyway, you could try giving the last serving of milk of the day in a cup. They’ll still have a full belly and you can incorporate other nighttime activities to signal bedtime is near.
If they take a pacifier, use it!
While most experts don’t recommend bottle feeding to sleep (or putting baby to bed with a bottle), pacifiers get a green light, for a while, at least. If you can get into putting your baby to bed with a pacifier, they may feel comforted and satisfied enough to lull themselves to sleep. Additionally, the use of pacifiers correlates with a reduced risk of SIDS. You’ll find then that when they wake it’s easier to get them back to sleep by just finding the pacifier they’ve probably lost!
Learn to accept other sleep crutches for a bit
Sleep experts will tell you to put your baby to bed “drowsy but awake.” Yeah, I always felt like a deer in headlights when faced with that advice too. That likely won’t work if you’ve been relying on bottles to fall asleep. However, you could lean into another sleep crutch until he/or she is ready to move on.
Try rocking back to sleep until your little one is comfortable ditching the bottle. Then, once you’re both ready, move on to letting them fall asleep in your arms without the rocking. Move in baby steps until you’re ready to put them down in their crib without the extra steps. Then, if they wake, gently pat them until they relax back into their slumber.