When your infant wakes up in the middle of the night, a feeding is a soft, comforting routine for him. Whether he’s nursing or drinking from a bottle, his empty tummy becomes full and content, he is comforted by your presence, and the gentle sucking motion lulls him easily back to sleep. But chances are you’ll be ready to end this routine sooner than your baby. So when you’re ready to stop the nighttime feedings, how do you convince your baby that it’s time?
First, you need to make sure your baby is developmentally ready to start sleeping for longer stretches without the extra nourishment. Most babies between 4 and 6 months of age get enough nutrition during the day that they don’t need to feed at night. If you’re not sure – or if your baby was premature or has been underweight – check with your doctor first.
Once your baby is ready, you can try a number of different strategies to help your baby sleep for longer stretches through the night. Those strategies include:
Lavish them with love: Babies need lots of loving attention, and a full night is a long time for them to go without it, especially if they’re not getting enough during the day. Make sure they are getting plenty of mommy or daddy time – especially time spent being held – during the day so that they don’t wake up craving it during the night.
Fill up their tanks: See to it that they get full feedings during the day and right before bedtime. You may consider a “dream feed,” which involves feeding them just before you go to bed (and which many babies sleep right through). If your baby is breastfed, you can try "cluster feeding" right before bed. When a baby cluster feeds she will have multiple feedings spaced closely together. By spacing the feedings close together, your baby will be able to go for longer stretches without needing to nurse.
Eliminate other wake-up factors: Make sure that the room is dark and warm and quiet. Use black-out shades on the windows and a white noise machine if necessary. Also make sure that the baby is not waking up because of a wet diaper and/or pajamas. If he needs a change, do it as quickly and quietly as possible.
Sleep in another room: If you are nursing, or even if you are not, your smell and sounds may be waking up your baby. The baby is more likely to avoid middle-of-the-night wakeups if he or she is in a separate room and is not distracted by your presence.
Find new ways to soothe: If your baby is waking up not out of hunger but out of a need for soothing, find something else besides a feeding to give her reassurance. A soft pat or stroking motion on the back or a gentle shushing sound could be all it takes to lull her back to sleep. Also, when your baby starts to stir, give her a chance to self-soothe and work things out on her own. If you wait just a few minutes before you go into her room, she may go back to sleep on her own.
Water down the bottle: If you are bottle-feeding, gradually water down the formula until the baby is getting mostly water. Many babies decide at this point that the water isn’t worth waking up for.
But the most important advice of all may be simply to give it time. Adjusting to any kind of major change – especially giving up nighttime feedings and sleeping through the night – may take a baby weeks or months to master. You can expect some periods of “two steps forward, one step back,” especially if your baby is sick, teething, starting day care, traveling, or working through a new developmental milestone. Be patient. If you help your baby establish good sleep habits early, he or she will be more likely to return to a good sleeping pattern once the latest distraction has passed. Before you know it you, your baby, and the rest of your household will be sleeping peacefully through the night.