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As a baby and child sleep expert with years of experience, I’ve encountered countless new parents facing the challenge of sleepless nights while they try weaning their babies and toddlers off night feeds. You can’t blame them- going back to a full night’s sleep is high on any family’s wish list! One common question that pops up time and time again is “when can I let my baby sleep through the night without a feeding?”
In this blog post, I will explore the appropriate timing for babies to sleep without night feeds, consider the differences between breastfeeding and bottle-fed babies, and address the situation of older babies or toddlers who genuinely wake up hungry at night. I will also address HOW you can effectively wean your baby or toddler from unnecessary night feeds.
Firstly- what IS night weaning?
Night weaning is the process of shifting calories from nighttime to daytime. We’re either transferring some of those nighttime calories to the daylight hours or moving them all over. Night weaning can look different depending on your baby’s age, stage, and what you want to achieve.
Just to be clear, we’re not yanking away all the calories completely. We’re simply transferring nighttime calories over to the day so they’re not as hungry at night.
The big question- when can a baby FINALLY sleep through the night without a feeding?
The magic moment usually happens around 8 months of age (adjusted). Most healthy babies by that age can sleep for a solid 11-12 hours without needing a feed.
But guess what? Even by 16-18 weeks of age (adjusted), many babies can sleep through the night with just one nighttime feeding. The good news is that you really don’t need to suffer through horribly sleepless nights until your baby is 8 months.
Don’t stress too much about your baby’s height or weight percentile. As long as they’re healthy and following their growth curve, their size won’t interfere with their ability to become sleep champs!
Why a younger baby might not be able to drop all night feeds despite reaching a certain weight
While your doctor may indicate that your baby no longer requires night feeds, this is actually a half-truth. Sure, your little one might not NEED those feeds from a nutritive standpoint. But there’s a lesser-known developmental aspect of being able to sleep straight through the night, particularly in those early morning hours, without waking up.
In order to stay asleep in those early morning hours, babies need “mature sleep skills” to remain asleep without waking up. This developmental milestone is typically achieved around 8 months of age or earlier. So if a younger baby lacks this level of sleep maturity, they may struggle to stay asleep without a feed in those early morning hours, even if they don’t necessarily require the calories. Taking this feed away too soon might result in some ugly early rising issues, and NOBODY wants that.
“But my baby is STARVING!!!”
Picture this. Your healthcare provider assures you that your 6-month-old doesn’t need to be eating every 2-3 hours at nighttime anymore, or that your 12 month-old doesn’t need ANY night feedings. And you WANT to believe him…I mean, it SEEMS logical, right?
But then reality strikes- your baby is waking up at night FAMISHED. What are you supposed to do? You agree with your doctor (in theory). But in reality, you’re not prepared to let your baby starve.
If this is what’s happening and your little one is clearly eating more at night than necessary, you might be dealing with a phenomenon called “reverse cycling”. This refers to a reverse eating pattern where your little one consumes more calories at night than necessary and, as a result, eats less during the day than he could be. And because your baby is hungrier at night if he didn’t eat as much during the day, he naturally will want to eat more at night. And the cycle continues.
It’s important to note that babies engaged in a reverse cycling eating pattern are usually gaining weight appropriately. So while there’s no medical problem here, it’s still creates HUGE sleep problems!
If this describes your little one’s sleeping and eating patterns, the good news is that we can fix this! Part of the solution needs to involve implementing a night weaning strategy. We need to gradually shift most (or all) of those calories from the nighttime to the daytime. This way, your little one can learn to eat MORE during the day so that he can learn to eat LESS at night!
Waking up hungry does not equate to NEEDING to wake up hungry. This is very fixable- remember that!
How to ditch these night feeds
Now that you’ve decided it’s time to let your baby sleep through the night without a feeding, it’s time to night wean! The main rule here is to remember is to remove theses feeds gradually (though not TOO gradually).
For bottle-fed babies, reducing the bottle size by 1 ounce each night can be beneficial. Breastfed babies can have their feeding time reduced by 1 minute per night. These are small enough amounts that your baby shouldn’t get too upset, but they’re also big enough to help you make real progress. Maintaining a written log of your baby’s progress is crucial for tracking their intake accurately and planning for subsequent nights.
Never, under no circumstance, go cold turkey and remove full night feedings abruptly, especially if you’re sleep training and breastfeeding. If your baby is used to waking up and eating quite a bit at night, you’ll have a genuinely hungry and frustrated baby. On top of that, you could end up engorged or with Mastitis. That’s never fun.
But if your little one is waking up to eat but isn’t ACTIVELY eating for most of the feed, this usually means he’s not getting many calories here to begin with. This is an example of a feed that you CAN remove cold turkey if you wanted.
Now, it’s important to note that night weaning should be combined with a chosen sleep training method to help your baby learn to fall asleep independently and sleep without sleep associations. Otherwise, your little one might continue to rely on the breast or bottle to fall back asleep throughout the night despite no longer relying on the calories.
Will introducing solid foods speed the process up?
Yes and no.
I’m guessing you heard that solid foods can magically lead to longer, uninterrupted sleep at night, right? I wish it was that simple. But reality is that the relationship between solid foods and sleep is a bit more complex than that.
While it’s true that starting solids introduces a different source of nutrition for your baby, it doesn’t guarantee an instant passport to dreamland. Some babies may experience changes in their sleep patterns as they adjust to new solid foods, but it’s not a universal guarantee that they’ll sleep through the night like clockwork.
So, why the mixed results? Well, here are a few key factors to consider:
- Developmental Readiness. Babies in the 4-8 month-range can typically sleep through the night with one feed, regardless of whether they’re eating solids. But for a baby to sleep 11-12 hours uninterrupted, you’ll want to ensure your little one is eating 3 meals of solids a day, in addition to their milk intake.
- Individual Variations. Each baby is unique, and their sleep patterns can vary. Some babies may naturally sleep long periods regardless of their food intake, while others may have more frequent awakenings regardless of solid foods. Hunger is not the only reason why babies and toddlers wake up at night unnecessarily!
- Nutritional Balance. While solids introduce new flavors and nutrients, they shouldn’t replace breast milk or formula as the primary source of nutrition in your baby’s first year anyways! Ensuring a balanced diet that includes appropriate amounts of breast milk or formula alongside solids is essential.
- Gradual Transition. Introducing solids is a gradual process. Initially, it’s more about exploration and taste rather than significant calorie intake. It takes time for babies to adjust to new solid foods and for their digestive systems to adapt. So, don’t expect an overnight transformation in sleep patterns.
“Can I let my baby sleep through the night without a feeding if my baby is breastfeeding?”
GREAT question, so glad you asked 🙂
There is a HUGE myth out there saying that breastfeeding babies will automatically be worse-off in the sleep department because breastfeeding and sleep don’t go hand-in-hand.
Here’s the deal. Contrary to popular belief, breastfed babies can sleep through the night or wake up only once for a feeding, just like bottle-fed babies. There are a few different sources of this confusion that I want to address.
Fact: Bottle-feeding a newborn baby CAN get you long periods of sleep (but that benefit is short-lived)
For the first couple of weeks of a baby’s life, formula-fed babies can sometimes sleep longer stretches of sleep at night than breastfed babies. See, newborn babies have tiny tummies that fill up quickly. Bottle-feeding, especially with formula, can provide a more substantial feed as it’s usually denser in calories and takes longer to digest. This can sometimes lead to longer stretches of sleep at night.
However, this benefit only applies to a baby in the first 0-3 months. As a baby gets older, their tummies grow in size, allowing them to hold more milk, whether it’s breastmilk or formula. Plus, by the time your newborn becomes an infant, their sleep patterns become more multifaceted where hunger is no longer the main cause of night wakings.
Fact: Growth spurts are much easier to manage with a bottle-fed newborn (but that benefit is also short lived)
Another reason why a bottle-fed newborn baby can sometimes sleep longer stretches at night is because it’s much easier and quicker to meet the sudden increase in caloric needs of a baby when he’s going through a growth spurt.
During growth spurts, babies experience rapid growth and an increased appetite. When breastfeeding, it can take 1-2 days for a mother’s milk supply to catch up to the baby’s increased demand. And until that happens, this mom is going to be EXHAUSTED from constantly breastfeeding her baby.
With a bottle-fed baby, on the other hand, you have the flexibility to simply fill the bottle with the desired amount of milk. This means that during a growth spurt, when the baby’s appetite increases, you can simply give your baby a bigger bottle to satisfy their larger appetite. Easy peezy.
However, as babies grow and their bodies develop, their sleep patterns and nutritional needs change. By that point, going through a growth spurt simply means your little one will need to eat more during the day.
Fact: Babies usually get consume less calories per feed when breastfeeding versus when bottle-feeding (but we can work around that)
Breastfed babies usually consume smaller quantities of milk per feed compared to bottle-fed babies. But this doesn’t mean they need more frequent feedings at night. Rather, they simply need to breastfeed more frequently during the day than a bottle-fed baby does to compensate for the smaller feeds. This way, a breastfed baby can get the same amount of daytime calories as a bottle-fed baby, allowing him to sleep longer stretches at night.
In short, bottles don’t have some magical sleepy potion, trust me! MANY bottle-fed babies still face all sorts of sleep challenges. So if you’re breastfeeding and you want your baby to sleep through the night without a feeding, this is VERY doable if your little one is old enough. You DON’T have to wean from breastfeeding altogether or offer your baby a bottle if you don’t want to.
Now, obviously if you WANT to wean from breastfeeding and start offering your baby more bottles instead, you can! Fed is best around here, my friend. And your little one can still sleep like a champ regardless 🙂
“But what if my little one is going through a growth spurt?”
Growth spurts primarily involve a sudden increase in calorie intake over a 24-hour period. And it’s often believed that when a baby experiences a growth spurt, they won’t be able to sleep through the night without a feeding.
In reality, it’s very normal for your little one to need to eat MORE over a 24 hour period when experiencing a growth spurt. But this doesn’t mean those extra calories have to come exclusively from night feeds. Rather, as long as your little one has graduated the newborn stage, he can absolutely get enough calories during the daytime hours when going through a growth spurt.
So, how can you make sure your little one gets those much-needed extra calories during the daytime? It’s simple, really. You can offer more frequent nursing and/or bigger bottles during the day, as well as larger quantities of solid foods. Pay attention to their hunger cues and provide nutritious options that can help meet their increased calorie requirements. This way, you’re satisfying their growing needs without disrupting their sleep at night.
Why night weaning might not work- a word of caution
Your little one MIGHT continue to wake up at night after you’ve completed the night weaning process if there are other factors contributing to your little one’s nightwakings that haven’t been addressed. For example, if your little one is overtired from an improper daytime schedule or relies on sleep associations to fall asleep, you could still be experiencing nightwakings that have NOTHING to do with hunger. This means night weaning your baby needs to be done as part of a bigger sleep plan to see results.
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Getting your baby sleeping through the night without a feeding can REALLY help your baby sleep longer stretches. However, it is vital to ensure your comfort with the process and evaluate if both you’re both ready.
I want to emphasize that if you’re not ready to night-wean, that’s fine! You might feel pushed by your peers (or the internet) to night wean your baby. Don’t feel pressured to do something you don’t want to do. It’s all about your comfort and goals.
And always run your sleep plan by your healthcare provider, especially if you’re planning to remove night feeds. They might have some valuable insights into your baby’s readiness. Following their advice is key.
If you need guidance on how to approach night weaning and create good sleep habits, do not hesitate to seek professional assistance. As a sleep expert who’s helped thousands of families get their little ones sleeping like champs, I’m here to help you establish healthy sleep habits for your little one and so that sleepless nights are a thing of the past.