We all know waking in the night to care for or feed your new baby is part of parenthood and those quiet snuggly feedings in the night can be some of the most peaceful and wonderful ones. Yet, the time will come when the importance of consolidated sleep (both yours and your baby’s!) will take priority over all those nighttime feedings. Reducing the number of feedings your child is having at night is sometimes also referred to as “night weaning.” With us, night weaning could be eliminating extra bottle feedings or breastfeedings at night. It’s important to note that it doesn’t actually mean weaning from breastfeeding (unless a parent wants it to); rather, it’s a reduction of nighttime calories. You CAN continue to breastfeed your baby successfully even though you may be ready to reduce the number of times you are doing it overnight.
The Science: Many babies will continue to wake for a feeding, or two or three, long past the age of needing it simply because their little bodies have become accustomed to those nighttime calories. Often these feedings hang around because a baby also has a sleep association where feeding is required to fall asleep. This means that your baby may wake at the end of every 60-90 minute sleep cycle and need to eat to go back to sleep, even if she no longer needs to eat. Sometimes this feeding can be brief comfort nursing and sometimes it can perpetuate calorie intake when it isn’t needed.
Real night feedings are typically associated with sucking, swallowing, and a transfer of milk and lasting more than 5 minutes of nursing or more than 2 ounces in a bottle. Comfort nursing or purely sleep association night feedings involve very little milk transfer. It’s important to determine whether your baby is taking in calories or not, because we would not recommend stopping a real night feeding cold turkey. This would basically amount to skipping a meal and could leave your baby feeling very uncomfortable.
How many feedings does my baby really need at night?
Before taking steps to reduce feedings, you’ll want to make sure you are asking your baby to do something s/he can achieve! If your baby is healthy and gaining weight well, then determine how many feedings your baby likely needs at night based on the chart below. It shows common nighttime feeding patterns and reasonable expectations for babies in the first year. Always check with your pediatrician to make sure your baby is ready to eat less at night and always adjust your baby’s age based on her due date. If your baby is eating more than what is indicated on this chart, and you are rested and happy with your situation, you don’t have a problem. If your baby is eating less and your pediatrician is happy with weight gain and growth – lucky you! This blog is for those of you whose babies are feeding MORE than what is indicated on the chart below and who are feeling the effects of fragmented sleep!
Night Feeding Chart
Age of Baby How Many Feedings? (typical patterns, may vary for some babies)
0-3 months Feeds are “on demand”. Feed whenever baby is hungry
3-4 months First 4-5 hours without a feeding, then 2-3 feedings.
4-6 months First 5-8 hours without feeding, then 1-2 feedings
6-9 months First 7-9 hours without feeding, then 0-1 feedings
9+ months Usually parents choice, 1 early morning feeding may be helpful for extended breastfeeding
Which feedings should I reduce first?
If you are unsure what times your baby is eating (or for how long) you may want to spend 2-3 nights collecting data. Once you’ve determined your baby’s average feeding pattern, you can make a plan to reduce feedings.
Reduce the earliest feedings first. For example, if your baby is eating at 10:00 pm, 1:00 am, and 4:00 am, eliminate the 10:00 pm feeding first. If you’ve determined that your baby only needs one feeding at night, then you can work on reducing the 10:00 pm and 1:00 am feedings at the same time. This approach mimics the natural transition that happens when babies drop feedings. Since deep sleep dominates the first part of the night it will be easier for your baby to go back to sleep after a reduced feeding in the first part of the night. In the early morning hours sleep pressure is very low and lighter sleep dominates, so if you are keeping a night feeding that’s the time to offer it. It’s also important to note that sometimes the last feeding of the night moves a little earlier when it is the only feeding of the night. In the example above, it would be normal for the 4:00 am feeding to move to 3:00 am when the other feedings are gone.
If your baby is ready to go through a full night without feedings, then be ready for it to be harder for your baby to resettle at 4:00 am, when sleep is light, compared to 10:00 pm, when sleep is deep.
How do I reduce my baby’s night feedings?
Remember that night feedings can also be sleep associations, so work on separating eating from falling asleep at bedtime as you reduce night feedings. If you’d like your baby to be able to fall asleep on her own in the middle of the night, it’s important she’s learning that skill at bedtime. The way your baby is falling asleep at bedtime, is typically the way she’ll expect to fall asleep in the night. If you rock your baby to sleep at bedtime, you’ll need to plan to rock her in the night too. If you’d like to work towards independence in the night, you’ll need to work on that at bedtime as welll.
Gradually reduce your baby’s feeding
At the feedings you plan to reduce, go to your baby right away when she wakes and feed her but, feed her less and less each night over the course of about 5-7 nights.
If you are breastfeeding, reduce the number of minutes you are nursing.
Depending on the length of your baby’s typical feedings, reduce each feeding by 30 seconds up to 2-3 minutes each night over the course of 5-7 nights.
When your baby is nursing for less than five minutes, then you can transition to rocking through the feedings or to a sleep training strategy.
If you have decided to reduce all of your baby’s night feedings and your baby will take a bottle, then you may opt to switch to bottles for night feedings, so that both parents can work on the calorie reduction. You can still continue to nurse all day.
If you are bottle feeding, reduce the number of ounces you offer in the bottle.
Reduce each feeding by 1/2 or one ounce a night over the course of 5-7 nights, depending on how much milk your baby typically takes.
When your baby is eating less than 2 ounces, then you can transition to rocking through the feeding or to a sleep training strategy of your choice.
It is ok to spend more nights reducing the feedings if you desire an even slower transition.
If you are keeping a night feeding (or feedings), then encourage your baby to eat as much as she wants at the time that you plan to keep the feeding(s).
Increase Daytime Calories
You may need to work on rebalancing your baby’s calorie intake, so that she’s able to obtain adequate calories during the day to replace what you are decreasing at night. This may be in the form of an extra nursing session or bottle or a little extra time/ounces eating during each feeding. Many parents find that the best time to add a feeding is immediately upon waking for the day.
For breastfeeding moms, this slower transfer of calories will help with your milk supply transition and should reduce engorgement. If you are nursing/pumping/working you may find it helpful to continue to pump an extra bottle of milk at 10pm before you go to bed even if you have stopped feeding your baby at that time.
If your baby is distracted during daytime feedings, make sure you offer feedings in a quiet, distraction free environment or try using a focus object to help!
This is not the time to be reducing daytime calories or spacing feedings significantly.
If your baby is eating solids, offer your baby her favorite, calorie-rich foods during the day and avoid introducing new foods that might make her extra gassy or constipated during this time.
Your child’s pediatrician can help you evaluate how many daytime feedings your child needs.
What if my baby doesn’t settle after a reduced feeding?
Remember, often night waking is not JUST about calories. Falling asleep while eating is a sleep association too. A sleep association is something your baby needs to fall asleep. It can be very hard to distinguish if a wake up is truly about hunger, or if it’s just about the need for a warm snuggly nurse or bottle to reinitiate sleep.
As you reduce your baby’s extra feedings, you may find she starts to put the breaks on as you lower her back down into her crib. This most likely means a big part of the wake up is a feeding to sleep association. The two most common ways to handle this resistance are:
Option 1: Rock, bounce, hold or otherwise soothe your baby to sleep after your reduced feeding. This is the most interactive kind of transition away from frequent nighttime feedings, but it does add some overall time to your plan. If nursing is a very strong association and your baby seems frustrated, it may be helpful to send in a non-nursing parent or caregiver. It may take a long time for your baby to fall asleep the first few times you do this, but eventually you’ll both get better at it. After the 5-7 day wean, the extra feedings will be gone and you’ll have a clearer picture of nighttime feeding needs. You can then begin to work on changing the remaining rocking/holding association with a sleep training method that feels right to you.
Option 2: Option 1 can be time consuming, so many parents opt to PAIR their night weaning with their sleep training strategy of choice. This means that after your baby’s reduced feeding, if she starts to protest as you place her back into the crib, you will immediately begin responding in a consistent manner in the sleep training method of your choice. If you choose this option, then be sure to start your sleep training method at bedtime if needed, so that your baby learns how to fall asleep in response to your actions.
Wading through the logistics of reducing night feedings – especially if you have sleep associations embedded in your night – can get a little complicated. If you are feeling like you have too many things to take into consideration, we hope you’ll consider a sleep consult! We can help you prioritize, simplify, and get on the right track!