A common sleep problem in the toddler years is the fact that you are still getting up a few times each night to fulfill your little ones demands for endless bottles of milk or juice. Should you refuse to offer this feed to your toddler, all hell breaks loose, and because you are so tired and worn out (not having had a good night’s sleep for a while), you give in because that is the easy option to ensure peace and quiet!
Rest assured, toddlers do not need any nutrition during the night (unless they are ill), regardless of how badly they have eaten in the day – in fact, the most common reason for poor eating habits in toddlers is because they drink all night long thus obtaining inappropriate calories! Your toddler will also have many teeth by now, so think about teeth decay from milk pooling in their mouth all night long. Now that your toddler is older and you can communicate with them, the good news is that you can discuss and negotiate why they can’t have a bottle during the night.
To start with, know that your toddler only needs in the region of 400 ml milk per day, and this can include milk in food such as yogurt and cheese. A good habit to get into is to offer milk feeds just twice a day, once on waking in the morning, and again at bedtime in the evening. All other fluid during the day should be in the form of water, or a healthy alternative like rooibos tea, given from a sippy cup or straw. This is a good start to wean your toddler completely off the bottle, which generally occurs around the age of 3. If your child is underweight or recovering from illness and needs some catch up growth, it is a good idea to give a specialised nutritional supplement milk such as Pediasure Complete at bedtime in place of milk. This will ensure that they are getting quality nutrition at bedtime, and allay any fears you may have of them needing milk feeds during the night.
Take your toddler on an outing to buy a special night-time cup/sippy cup. As part of the bedtime ritual allow them to fill it with water and place it next to the bed. Tell them before they go to sleep that there will be no bottles during the night (the milkman has gone home and will only be back in the morning) and that if they are thirsty, there is water to sip on. When they wake in the middle of the night insisting on a bottle of milk/juice, follow these simple steps:
- Acknowledge how they are feeling by saying “I know you want your bottle now”
- Then mirror the feeling by saying “I would like to give it to you”
- Then give a reason why you can’t “Remember the milkman has gone home and won’t be back until the morning”
- Offer a choice “would you like some water from your cup?”
- Remind them about an alternative calming object by saying “here is your blanket/teddy – this will make you feel better”
- Expect them to reject all offers of water or comfort objects, so don’t be thrown by this behaviour at this stage (which will be a temper tantrum because they are not getting what they have come to expect!)
- Repeat the acknowledgement of their feeling, sympathise with them, tell them why you have made your decision and offer an alternative in the form of the water cup or comfort object.
- If the tantrum persists, tell them that you don’t like it when they shout at you like that, so you are going back to bed and you will see them in the morning. Leave the room and close the door, no matter how much they persists.
- Go back and reassure them in a short while (after a minute or two), then repeat the process.
- Gradually extend the amount of time spent out of their room (by one to two minutes) so that they are on their own for longer and longer periods of time. With time (and this may be from one session to the next, or it may take a few days), they will realise that you have not abandoned them, and that you are still around (albeit on your terms). They will be reassured by this realisation, and will soon master the skill of going back to sleep by themselves without needing a bottle.
- It is very important to be consistent in your approach and not to confuse them with mixed messages.
- Be prepared to invest time and effort into this exercise, it will be worth it!
- Remember, as long as you provide the bottle in the night, they will always expect it – so stop providing it and they will stop expecting it!
Written by Sister Ann Richardson, qualified nurse and midwife and co-author of Baby Sense; Sleep Sense and author of the international best seller Toddler Sense