For much of a baby's life, it's normal to offer a last feeding before he goes to bed. It doesn't necessarily help a baby sleep longer; although the more calories he gets in the day, the less he'll need through the night. So, "topping him off" before bed may help just as a result of him getting more calories. However, at some point, the bedtime feed becomes more of a hindrance to sleep than it does a help. Also, does feeding right before bed help baby sleep longer? Let me walk you through a timeline of feeding before bed and explain how things progress.
Bedtime Feeding During the Newborn Stage
Newborns have tiny little tummies. So, they eat much more often. They're also not able to stay awake for very long before needing more sleep. (Download my free Sleep Times Chart for wake windows by month.) Therefore, it's really common for newborns to fall asleep while eating or sleep right after eating. In the newborn stage, go with the flow! For more information on newborn sleep, check here.
Bedtime Feeding and Reflux/Tummy Troubles
If you have a little one with reflux or tummy sensitivities, you know that they need some upright time after eating before being laid down. However, did you know that all babies can actually benefit from this? Even if your baby doesn't have a reflux diagnosis, his digestive system is new and not yet completely developed. Getting a full belly right before being laid down can cause upset tummies, excess spit-up, and general trouble sleeping. Have you ever had a huge meal or late night snack and then tried to lay right down to bed? It's usually not an enjoyable result. The same is true for your baby.
Bedtime Feeding 4-12 Months
It is good to still provide a bedtime feeding for a baby 4-12 months-old. However, I always recommend that the feeding is done at the beginning of the baby's bedtime routine. There are a few reasons for this.
First, as I explained above, eating right before sleeping can cause tummy issues. You want to try and have 20-30 minutes between the feed and the time you actually lay him into bed for sleep. Some parents think that feeding right before laying him down will result in longer sleep, but this is simply not the case. His sleep stretches are more about caloric intake and independent sleep skills than the exact timing of the last feed.
Second, if you're trying to encourage your child to sleep independently and for long stretches at night, then avoiding a feed-to-sleep association could help. There's a popular model out there called the Eat, Wake, Sleep method. It's goal is to separate eating from sleeping by having the baby's wake time in between the two. With this method, you feed the baby right when he wakes up, then he has his wake/play time, then more sleep.
Third, both breast milk and formula have a lot of sugar in them. Obviously, each woman is slightly different, but in general, 1 cup of breastmilk has 17g of sugar in it. Formulas are all different too, but on average, 1oz of formula has about 2g of sugar in it. So, a baby who drinks a 6oz bottle is getting about 12g of sugar. Sugar has a large effect on sleep, mainly the ability to fall asleep and sleep deeply. It's important for the body to have a chance to break down some of this sugar before bedtime. For more information on how sugar affects sleep, check out this post.
When Should You Drop the Bedtime Bottle or Feed?
At 12 months, a baby's main source of nutrition can switch from milk/formula to solid food. This is when many parents switch from formula to milk, or even just water. Gideon had a dairy allergy as a baby and never liked any kind of milk alternative (we tried them all). So, we just switched to water and he got all of his nutrients from the foods we fed him. He grew out of his dairy allergy and now loves cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products, but still doesn't drink much milk. Babies who are breastfed often reduce their feeds and/or time they nurse around this age too as they eat more and more foods.
So, 12 months is when I recommend dropping the bedtime feed. At this age, your baby simply doesn't need as many calories from milk. A baby shouldn't need a bedtime feed after 12 months in order to sleep all night and grow normally. If he's not gaining weight appropriately at this age, then I'd suggest seeing an occupational therapist or feeding specialist to make sure he overcomes any issues he has with solid foods.
After 12 months, the sugar in milk becomes more of a hindrance to deep sleep than it is a help to him sleeping. All 3 of my kids were sleeping all night without a feed by 6-7 months. This did not change at all when I dropped their bedtime feeds at 12 months. At this age, focus on your child getting as many good, nutrient-rich calories as he can during the day. Don't fret about him not eating right before bed.
My kids (now 4, 2.5, and 14-months) don't have anything to eat or drink after dinner. They sleep all night and are all growing and developing well! They do eat me out of house and home during the day. Dinner is actually their lightest meal (their choice) and they still sleep very well all night. They are then hungry for a HUGE breakfast! I know many children who follow a similar pattern. This is actually a very healthy way to eat. Our bodies don't need a large amount of calories right before bed; we need them more during the day time to give us energy!
How to Drop Bedtime Feed
Dropping the bedtime feed is similar to weaning at any other time. There are a couple of ways you can do this.
Cold turkey: simply stop offering a feed at bedtime and instead offer a drink of water. Keep the rest of your bedtime routine the same and make sure to offer as much food as he wants in the day time. There may be a few days of adjustment/protest with this, but he should be fine soon after.
Gradual reducing: Gradually reduce the amount of milk you offer at bedtime. For bottle-fed babies, you could give 1oz less each night or two until there's nothing left. For breastfed babies, you will reduce the amount of time you let him nurse every night or two. This can also help you not have to pump as your body will recognize the gradual reducing as well.
I recommend dropping the bedtime feed at 12 months of age, due to the feed association, the sugar content in the milk/formula, and the fact that it's no longer necessary. You can either wean this feed or drop it cold turkey. Dropping this feed can greatly help him get that great deep sleep all kids need to grow and develop!
Ready to drop the bottle altogether? Here's a blog post that explains how I easily did that with all three of my kids at 12 months- without any tears! No Tears Bottle Weaning
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant