When addressing your child’s night-time sleep- a common cycle is one where your child needs a feed – or two or three- to return to sleep. In infancy night-time feeds were needed to ensure that your baby was fed when hungry and due to the small capacity of their stomach this meant that they may have needed night feeds every 1-3 hours depending on your feeding practice and their biological need. Unfortunately for many families – sometimes this need to feed back to sleep lasts much longer than anticipated, as their waking and being fed back to sleep slowly is no longer required but remains as they get used to it and therefore appear to be unable to sleep overnight without it- long after hunger is a requirement.
It is quite usual for parents to assess the situation and conclude that the feed must be needed because they always drink it- but this isn’t always the case and as your child gets older then physiologically, they don’t need night feeding and their entire calorie need can be met by day. However, if they are drinking overnight then this may impair their appetite for actual food and/or result in using milk to fill them up when they won’t eat much. It can be a vicious cycle of overnight feeds impairing the daytime appetite that is suppressed by the milk, but it is hard to increase the appetite without commencing on a milk reduction quest.
In order to ensure that the night weaning is a successful endeavour, firstly confirm with your GP or health visitor that it is age appropriate to commence this. Also, it would be strongly advised that you implement my feeding and sleeping suggestion for your child’s age. These timings support changes that you are planning to make and also ensure that your child is optimally rested as you work on some structural changes.
Particular attention is encouraged around the end of nap times and the relationship to bedtime so that your child is not awake too long before bedtime as per their age. I refer to this as the nap gap dynamic and it is represented by the optimal time for your child to be awake before they are asleep at bedtime. This ranges from 2-5 hours based on their age profile.
Another important consideration is that for night weaning to work well- feeds at bedtime in either a bottle/cup or breast capacity are moved earlier in the bedtime process and parents ensure that there is a 45-minute clearance between finishing their feed and projected sleep time. For those of you whose child is falling asleep on their last feed, you will need to become familiar with my stay and support approach that helps you to bridge the gap with lots of emotional and physical support for the changes you are making.
A bedtime routine in the bedroom that your child sleeps in – with the last feed done in the living space can help pave the way to disassociating the initial feed at bedtime, which opens up scope to begin night weaning. Parents who retain the bedtime feed may report that night weaning is not successful as their child’ sleep ability is not high enough to sustain the overnight segment without feeding intervention.
When weaning is appropriate, I begin to regulate the night feeds and propose a feed every four hours which will allow for 2 night-time feeds. Then I propose simultaneously reducing the amount in the bottle or the time on the breast over the course of a few nights so that within 3-4 nights there is only 2oz or 2m- and then the feed is dropped entirely. As you reduce and ultimately drop the feed- replace with my stay and support approach and make sure to move through the stages set out. Understand that it may take 2-3 weeks plus for night waking and early rising to diminish – be careful that you do not replace the feed with water or with another strategy that relies on your ongoing input. The goal is to help your child to manage their own sleep – and for them to start to cycle through their own sleep phases- waking as everyone does and returning themselves to sleep thereafter, all for themselves.
Creating the fertile ground for this and nourishing every aspect of their being, together with the recommended changes, will help to reverse the night feeding cycle and promote longer, more consolidated sleep tendencies. This also relies on being well rested by day – based on your child’s age and on your predictable and considered loving responses to your child by day as well as by night.