When and How to Eliminate the Bedtime Bottle
“I like to hear my baby cry!” said no mom ever. That’s one reason that it’s hard for parents to guide their children toward better sleep habits. When you find something that works to get your baby to sleep, you want to keep doing it — even if it takes hours.
“No matter what I do, this child is not going to go off to college sucking on a bottle before bedtime,” you tell yourself.
And yet, your five-year-old daughter relies on a bottle to sleep …
“They’ll wean off of it soon enough, right? Do I really have to cut out the bottle NOW?”
The answer? Yes.
Recently, I chatted with a couple about their five-year-old daughter who was still using a bedtime bottle in order to initiate sleep and maintain it. No, there was no milk in it, not even water … but she needed to suck on the nipple. I know, it sounds extreme but it was not the first time I have had parents admit this to me.
There is no guilt, nor shame here at Pam Nease Sleep! Everyone on my team, with the exception of our current assistant, are past clients. We did all the things to get our own children to sleep and back-to-sleep before we sought professional, one-on-one help via a paid sleep consultation package.
Because here’s the thing ...
We get it. In the words of Oprah, even when you “know better, you don’t always do better.”
Giving your child a bottle before bed, or when they wake in the middle of the night, is appropriate when they’re younger. Babies need formula or breastmilk for nourishment! For example, it is common knowledge that a newborn’s stomach is only the size of an egg around 10 days of age.
But by the time they’re 6 months old (*adjusted, if working with preemies), many experts agree that most typically-developing infants don’t need the nutrients and calories that they are getting from nighttime feedings. Babies are typically consuming enough throughout the day, and they’re getting their nutritional needs met.
At What Age Should You Say Goodbye to the Bedtime Bottle?
The first birthday! By the time your child is 12 months old, my best advice is to remove the bedtime bottle from your child’s sleep routine even if they know HOW to self-soothe themselves into sleep and back into sleep throughout the night.
I get it. Most likely, if you are like me and the thousands of families we have personally guided via one-on-one paid advice, you will be worried that your once great sleeper will suddenly wake up in the night from hunger.
I guarantee you that if your baby truly knows the beautiful gift and vital life skill of being able to fall asleep at the beginning of the night all by themselves, they will not wake up looking for the lost eight ounces from bedtime! You might be afraid, just like I was in 2007— when my spouse forgot to give our 10-month-old son his bedtime bottle one fateful night. I was TERRIFIED but my son was not. He sailed right through and slept his normal 11.5 hours until morning.
So, what’s the issue? Why is bottle-dependence by far one of the most popular reasons we get calls for HELP from tired parents across North America looking for a better solution?
It’s because the baby is not only getting the bottle to fill their belly but it is also tool to initiate sleep and to return to sleep.
Many sleep consultants will call a bedtime bottle a prop, a crutch, or a bad sleep habit. I prefer to call it a "temporary tool" as I never want to guilt or shame a parent for the choices they are making. Where families “fall down” is not recognizing that their child needs to learn HOW to sleep all on their own without the need of external strategies (as we don’t want to replace one external strategy with a new one). I know this one so well … I did not want to be the “human soother” and tried replacing my breast with both the bottle and the pacifier before I sought professional help.
If you are still needing to teach your child HOW to go from awake to asleep all on their own, please keep using the bottle for now until you find someone or a sleep training program you are 100% confident in.
Why Stop the Bedtime Bottle around Age 1?
- Teeth are coming in at rapid-fire by this time. This will save time as you will not have to brush their teeth again after the bottle, nor worry about milk deposits.
- Bedtime bottles may start to interfere with dinner. (For some reason, if you are curious, bedtime nursing does not.) In one particular case, an 18-month-old would not eat his meal at 6 pm knowing that he would be getting 18 ounces … yes, you read that correctly, 18 ounces of formula at 7pm before bed.
- Most parents feel like they are ready and that their tiny human is getting enough calories by day to sleep through the night without the need for the “top-up”. Although they are naturally nervous, they are ready and would like to speed up bedtime and get to date night even faster.
How to Drop the Bedtime Bottle between 10-18 Months
As scary as may be for you wonderful parents, it will be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy to your sweet little muffin. If you are bottle-feeding – on your fateful night of saying goodbye to the bedtime bottle, have the “opposite parent” do the bedtime routine 100% on their own for TWO nights in a row. If you have been alternating consistently since your little one has learned to sleep, then toss a coin on who does the first bedtime without the bottle.
If you would like to keep a bottle in the evening, move it to BEFORE bath rather than afterward.
Second, TRUST your little one! Do NOT replace the bottle with a sippy cup of milk, warm cup of milk or even worse – a bedtime snack. Please trust me on this as it may cause MORE problems down the road. Sleep is all about skill at this age. I know you are not going to starve your precious bundle of joy by day so they will be able to sleep well by night. A little bit of food or milk just before bed will not help them sleep peacefully for 10 to 12 hours.
Continue to use bottles by day and move to cups exclusively when your family is ready to do so. I am not your feeding expert – I am your sleep expert, but I would recommend that you say goodbye to daytime bottles by the time your child is two years old at the very latest.
18 months and up – Bottle Fed Toddlers
Asking a toddler to say goodbye to their bedtime bottle is much more challenging than a baby. We all have habits and the longer we have them, the harder it is to change them! To be successful with this age group – as scary as it is – you have to go cold turkey. Meaning no more bottles AT ALL ... during the day AND at bedtime.
Introducing The Bottle Fairy
For these toddlers, I suggest using a super FUN motivational strategy called The Bottle Fairy. In this delightful video below, get to know Pam and find out her trade secrets including the introduction of The Bottle Fairy.
Here’s how to do it …
- About a week or so before you are ready, start letting your little one know that they are a Big Girl or Big Boy and that the Bottle Fairy will be coming soon!! She will collect all their bottles to take them back to babies who need them. Replace the word “bottle” with whatever name your toddler uses to identify them. Quite often it is the word “bubba.” Please only do this lead up for ONE week (no more), as you do not want to create unnecessary anxiety for your child. Even a few days is fine! Don’t worry if your child does not know what a fairy is either. If you’d like, you can rent a book from the library or watch a Netflix children’s show about fairies to introduce the concept.
- Between nap time and bedtime on your big day, make it a GAME. Hide all the bottles around the house and have FUN collecting them all with your little one and put them outside on the doorstep for the Bottle Fairy in a box or a bag.
- When your little one is not looking, sneak outside and collect the bag or box of bottles. Replace them with a gift from the Bottle Fairy. I LOVE it when parents go to the extra trouble of putting Fairy Dust and sparkles! A good idea is to give your toddler a new special sippy cup from the bottle fairy (not to be used at bedtime though) and a special toy for your child to play with.
- At bedtime, if your toddler is looking for their bottle, remind them of the Bottle Fairy and that they are a big kid now! Remind them that there are no more bottles in the home as the Bottle Fairy took them to babies who need them. Focus on making bedtime fun and enjoyable with books and songs.
- As stated earlier, do NOT replace the bedtime bottle with a sippy cup of milk, warm cup of milk, a bottle, or even worse – a bedtime SNACK.
- TRUST that your little one will eventually drink milk from sippy cups or regular cups by day! In all the years that I have been consulting, 99.9% of toddlers start drinking their milk out of their cups within two weeks of the Bottle Fairy coming to their home.
- HAVE FUN!!! There was a little boy who received a toddler car that made noise, and he could safely scoot around the house. He LOVED it. His parents were so worried about saying goodbye to his bottles – in their words, he was “addicted” to them. Whenever he would say “bubba'' during the day, they would remind him that he was a big boy and that the “bubba fairy” came. Within seconds, his tears would be replaced with a big smile and he would go and find his car to ride on. They were amazed at how easily he adapted at bedtime too. Before they hired me – he needed to fall asleep WITH the bottle in his mouth and needed several bottles throughout the night in order to sleep. It was not just a “top-up” situation.
If you are reading this and your child still relies on the bottle to fall asleep, please note that the Bottle Fairy strategy is only one part of the solution. Please get in touch for a complimentary 15 minute telephone consultation so that we can discuss your particular situation and discuss what is best for you.
As always, this is not medical advice. If you are concerned with your child’s feeding, please consult your IBCLC Lactation Consultant, Pediatrician, Family Doctor, or preferred healthcare professional.
Pam Nease, BA
With a reputation you can trust (4.7⭐ Facebook, 4.9⭐ Google and 5.0⭐ Yelp), a quick fix, coupled with long-term (regression proof) outcomes, we are delighted to have Pam Nease, Founder & CEO of Pam Nease Sleep est. 2009 as our guest this week.
Described as "a miracle worker" by her clients, Pam left a successful corporate career to dedicate her life to helping others with the beautiful gift and vital life skill of independent sleep. Due to the overwhelming demand for her services, she began to train past clients with her loving.simple.practical and FUN sleep solutions after accumulating over 10,000 hours working with one family at a time via her virtual, in-home, and exclusive Sleep Nanny Packages.
Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees and/or contractors.
This blog post was originally published 02/16/2021 but has been updated for 2022.