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Toddlers & Midnight Snacks

Aug10

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesWe have one awesome eighteen-month-old kid. Cheerful, healthy, bright, talkative, appropriately destructive curious, full of good things. He’s always been a good eater – back to birthweight by his third day, started solids with enthusiasm, did his part in the baby-led weaning thing, and moved to all solid foods for good at around fifteen months with remarkably little drama. He eats what we eat (except espresso drinks, liquor, and things with hot sauce), and he eats pretty well everything. People keep making dire predictions about the picky phase, but so far we’re good.

The last three nights, he’s woken up a little before midnight, crying that he’s hungry and asking for food. Each time we’ve given him a hearty cracker or two (we have these big whole-grain ones he loves) and a bottle of warm whole milk. He eats, drinks, goes back to sleep, and sleeps late – about an hour longer than usual.

Photo credit: Thinkstock
My mother has already offered her unhelpful warnings that this “could become a habit” and has suggested that maybe it’s because he’s not getting enough protein at dinner (we’re vegetarian, and this is her ongoing thing). The first night of this saga, he’d eaten cauliflower-chickpea curry and mutter paneer, both homemade, which are high in protein and have plenty of fat in them, so that seems…unlikely. I mean, right? Suddenly? He eats most of two eggs scrambled with “soy-cutash” and half an english muffin every morning. We make our own whole-milk yogurt. The kid eats.

Is this a growth spurt? Could it connected to him getting his last molars? Could he really “develop a habit” of waking for an 11:30pm bottle after a long stretch of sleeping well through the night? Last week was his first full week in the toddler room at school, could that be it? Please help, we would all like to get back to sleep and also an adorable and beloved toddler wailing “Hungry? Hungry? Please, cracker? Please? Craaacker?” is utterly heartbreaking.

miserably,
Wakeful Papa

I hate to break this to you, Dad, but you’ve been kind of duped. By your kid. I can say with probably 99.9999% accuracy that he’s not really hungry. Or at least he wasn’t, initially. Now that he’s gotten all accustomed to his little midnight snack, he probably does feel a tad hungry, and yes, he can 100% very much turn this 11:30 waking into a regular, long-term habit. (Think about if you started eating a snack every single day at 3 pm…it wouldn’t take more than a day or two before you started feeling hunger pangs right at that time, like clockwork.) But the only way to stop it is if you — the parents — stop it.

If I had to take a wild guess, it sounds like a touch of separation anxiety — that first full week in the toddler room, maybe? He likely woke up wanting you, but for little ones it’s usually easier to ask for tangible, vocab-y words like “milk” or “cracker” than it is for them to express feelings like “scared” or “lonely” or “hey, Dad, I’m having a hard time getting back to sleep for some reason and I could really use a little extra reassurance that you’re still here for me.” Conveniently enough, food and warm milk also provide that reassurance, but they aren’t necessary for him, or even a good idea.

It’s a bummer that your mother got inside your head about the HE NEEDS PROTEIN thing, because I am PRETTY SURE there are a bunch of happy meat-eating families reading about your child’s diet here who will admit that he’s eating way more variety and getting better nutrition than our picky kids’ preferred meals of carbs with a side of more carbs. You say he eats enough, and you are right. So really, let go of that little worry — HE REALLY ISN’T ACTUALLY THAT HUNGRY.

But she is right about the habit thing. Eighteen-month-olds don’t need midnight snacks — none of us do, really — but the late-night munchies are pretty hard to resist, once you’ve gotten used to them. So I’m not going to lie: This isn’t going to be the easiest thing you’ve ever done. He expects it now, so you’re going to have to hold firm. But just like late-night snacking isn’t really good for adults, it’s not really great for toddlers either to be interrupting their sleep for calories they don’t need. Or for toddlers to be interrupting their parents’ sleep for it, either.

And…well, I’m sure you knew this was coming but you’ve GOT to stop giving him that bottle of milk. He’s too old! Not a baby anymore!  No bottles past 12 months! Give him a sippy cup with a straw, when you need to prevent spills. And unless you’re brushing his teeth after his midnight bottle (your letter doesn’t say, but implies he’s just drinking himself back to sleep), you’re sending him to bed with a nice coating of cavity-causing milk sugars in his mouth. (And the carbohydrates in those nice whole-grain crackers can be just as damaging  to teeth as candy!) Bad news for his teeth, should this habit keep up for much longer.

Here’s a relevant excerpt on mistakes we parents make when it comes to toddler sleep routines from Toddler 411 – and letting your kid eat in the middle of the night is definitely one of them. Sleep and a full belly have nothing to do with each other at this age. It’s a kinda tough love take on things, I admit, but read it if you need further convincing that 1) you really aren’t starving your son, and 2) you will be doing the right thing in the end, even if you make him furious for a few nights while you break the milk-and-cracker habit.

Tonight, when he wakes up, say “No cracker, it’s time to sleep.” Try offering a lovey, a musical toy, maybe a drink of water or rocking if he gets upset. But no 1) cracker or 2) milk. He may continue to wake up for your company for a few more nights — so you can maybe step that down gradually each night too, by getting tougher on the no rocking/no getting out of the crib/less and less talking and interaction from you guys. Basically…yeah, a little bit of sleep training. (Bet you thought you were past THOSE DAYS, right?)

Don’t beat yourself up or anything — your baby asked for food and you gave it to him. He got you! Welcome to toddlerhood and life with an adorable little master manipulator.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to “Toddlers & Midnight Snacks”

  1. Stephanie Aug 10 at 11:27 am Reply Reply

    Excellent advice, Amy! I remember my daughter’s pediatrician saying at 6 months that she probably didn’t need to be nursing at 3AM each morning like clockwork. She had just been programmed to wake up and be hungry. When my husband started going in and giving her a pacifier instead, the nighttime wakings ended! Now if only I could kick my now 2 year old’s obsession with her pacifier. Oops!

  2. Marni Aug 10 at 11:59 am Reply Reply

    I’m going to go a little sideways on this one. I do agree that the midnight waking/snacking could become a habit, if it’s not already. It certainly seems like he’s eating plenty for dinner – and a lot more variety than mine. My daughter did get hungrier and ask for food more often when going through growth spurts, and so there was a short period of time when we’d offer a small snack right before bed time (prior to bed time routine). But, she was never an early-to-bed-sleep-for-12-hours kid, so there were always a good 2-3 hrs between dinner and bed. I did not let the snack become a habit, and now that she’s older I know that if she’s eaten a good dinner and tells me she’s still hungry a couple hours later that she probably really is hungry. You don’t mention what his bed time is and how close to dinner, but if he’s sleeping longer after the snack, one idea might be to experiment with pushing his bedtime back just a little and add a small snack, and see if that helps. If it is a growth spurt, he won’t need the snack for very long, and you can distract him into some other pre-bedtime activity.

  3. Marni Aug 10 at 12:00 pm Reply Reply

    I’m going to go a little sideways on this one. I do agree that the midnight waking/snacking could become a habit, if it’s not already. It certainly seems like he’s eating plenty for dinner – and a lot more variety than mine. My daughter did get hungrier and ask for food more often when going through growth spurts, and so there was a short period of time when we’d offer a small snack right before bed time (prior to bed time routine). But, she was never an early-to-bed-sleep-for-12-hours kid, so there were always a good 2-3 hrs between dinner and bed. I did not let the snack become a habit, and now that she’s older I know that if she’s eaten a good dinner and tells me she’s still hungry a couple hours later that she probably really is hungry. You don’t mention what his bed time is and how close to dinner, but if he’s sleeping longer after the snack, one idea might be to experiment with pushing his bedtime back just a little and add a small snack, and see if that helps. If it is a growth spurt, he won’t need the snack for very long, and you can distract him into some other pre-bedtime activity.

  4. Olivia Aug 10 at 12:03 pm Reply Reply

    I think Amy’s advice for this particular issue sound very good, but I gotta say I do not like that Toddler 411 link at all. Way to rigid with the ages, implying that going past 1 yr with a bottle is absolutely not allowed. And no child after 6 months ever needs to eat during the night? Bull-puckey! I also don’t like the mis-information about a child needing a parent to fall back asleep. Some parents are okay with that and even welcome it by bedsharing with their children.

    Sorry to rant, this isn’t really about me so I know I shouldn’t make it about me, but it is irritating.

  5. Kim Aug 10 at 12:39 pm Reply Reply

    Totally agree with Olivia.

  6. Kate Aug 10 at 12:44 pm Reply Reply

    Even though I’ll admit that Amy’s advice is probably *right,* I just want to chime in to say that I totally wouldn’t follow it. I’m too much of a softie. A toddler crying that he’s hungry? feed him! Unless, of course, it goes on and on… but I’d probably give him a little while and see if it really is just a growth spurt. If you do ultimately decide he’s just looking for comfort, I’d probably phase out the snack and just give a bottle for awhile, then phase that out and just snuggle for a little bit. As for the bottles after 12 months thing — my personal opinion is that “rule” is way too rigid. Kids nurse for comfort for longer than a year, so why shouldn’t they get a bottle? Sure, it may not be the best thing in the world, but so what? Your kid’s teeth aren’t going to fall out because you broke that rule once a day for a couple of extra months… (full disclosure, we didn’t eliminate pre-nap and pre-bedtime bottles until my son was 2. I just didn’t see it as any big deal and we stopped when he was ready to stop).

  7. Katie Aug 10 at 1:02 pm Reply Reply

    @Kate–I’m a pretty strict “food only happens in the kitchen” mom, so I wouldn’t cave on the cracker, but I totally agree with you on the bottle thing. Maybe it’s my own guilt about being unable to breastfeed–but if I were nursing my 13 month son once daily before his nap, and then again at bedtime, I’m sure I would get praise for keeping up the extended nursing! My son loves to snuggle with me and have a bottle before bed. I hold the bottle, I never leave it in the crib, and I wipe his teeth (all 4 of them) down with a washcloth before he goes in his crib. I know it’s not the best habit for his teeth–but for now, I’m making my own personal judgment call that the bonding is worth it.

  8. neurotic Aug 10 at 2:39 pm Reply Reply

    Amy, this may be a stupid rookie question but.. am I supposed to brush my 2-month old’s… mouth? gums? after breastfeeding? I mean, I figure that any milk in the mouth = bad to sleep on, but also – seriously? It sounds like a horrible thing to have to do. And if not now, then when?

    - neurotic about oral hygiene

    **************
    Isabel says: please take a look at this link: http://www.aapd.org/publications/brochures/babycare.asp which is from the official guidelines for dental care for babies. According to them, the answer to your question is “Yes, with a small cloth and water” (read more on the link).

  9. jessica Aug 10 at 2:44 pm Reply Reply

    My son did the same thing at the same age. He’d been sleeping through the night for a good six months. All of a sudden, he was waking at 2AM with all sorts of requests… “hungry” “milk” “water” “thirsty” “yogurt,” “cracker.” At first, I gave in to all requests, because he was my BABY and he was HUNGRY/THIRSTY. I could convince myself that maybe he hadn’t eaten that well at dinner that night, etc. Then I realized that it had nothing to do with anything besides wanting to hang out with mom for a while in the middle of the night. I pretty much stopped cold-turkey after a week or two, although I would still give him a sippy cup with water if requested. The requests stopped quickly, although the overnight awakenings continued to be a problem for the next 3-4 months (argghh!). I pretty sure it was ALL seperation anxiety – at the same tiem he started having trouble with daycare drop-off, going to bed, and taking naps. He just didn’t want to be alone.

  10. PinkieBling Aug 10 at 3:25 pm Reply Reply

    I just wanted to comment on the rampant adorableness of the baby photo for this post. Best toddler facial expression EVER.

  11. JenVegas Aug 10 at 4:32 pm Reply Reply

    Dear Lord, neurotic, I can’t even get my 8 month old to sit still to cut his finger nails. I have no idea how I’d get in there to brush the little nubs of his front teeth.

  12. MR Aug 11 at 12:15 am Reply Reply

    Neurotic, there is “recommended” and then there is realistic. They recommend washing baby’s gums. However, a lot of people probably don’t do it. When I confessed to my mom that I couldn’t for my dd (the crying fits weren’t worth it to me), she just replied “Honey, I had five kids. I never brushed any of your teeth until you were at least two and could help. I just didn’t have time!” It certainly didn’t hurt any of us. Use your judgement. 

    ********
    Isabel says: beyond fair point. I started with the baby tooth brush and wash cloth & water at 6 months when my son started rupturing teeth or I could see them starting to peek through the gum line.

  13. Sarah Aug 12 at 10:17 am Reply Reply

    When I read that this kid was 18 months old, my very first thought was “sleep regression”. Granted this would be pretty dang mild, but combine that with new daycare room and it would cover it. I still agree with eliminating the snack, but this could also just be part of a developmental leap wakin’ him up. Here’s a link to a good Ask Moxie post about the 18 month sleep regression specifically.

    http://www.askmoxie.org/2006/04/qa_18month_slee.html

  14. Claire Aug 15 at 3:03 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with the poster above who suggested a little snack (of a cracker & warm milk, perhaps) before bed.  My daughter started to wake really early (and hungry) right around that age.  Once I started giving her a nightsnack (dinner at 5:30, snack at 7, and then brush teeth, go to bed), she resumed sleeping in until 7 or 7:30.  My mom says we needed a nightsnack for quite some time as toddler/young kids.  

  15. j wallace Aug 17 at 10:39 pm Reply Reply

    Well that certainly was more smack down and less advice.

    Here’s the update from our house.

    We listened to our kid, and for three consecutive nights, when he woke hungry, we fed him. We ignored the dire warnings from our parents, and experts, as did the kid, who on night four, slept all the way through the night, which he has consistently since. It absolutely seems to have been a growth spurt. It seems that for those three nights, there was something going on, and he really needed food.

    Not duped and sleeping well,
    the other dad

  16. JenD Aug 24 at 7:03 am Reply Reply

    LOL! Good for You Papa Bear!! That is exactly what I would’ve done. The “experts” are frequently morons, because you know your child! All this 6mo, 12mo B.S. definitely didn’t apply to my LO who was below the growth charts for months. . . She stopped growing between 7-17mo- and the “experts” including her pediatrician swore all was well… when I finally ignored their advice and began following my instincts- she gained 6lb and went through 3 clothing sizes in 3wks! She’s now back on the charts (and still taller than she is heavy- 10th percentile H, 5th W- still low, but she’s climbing and she Was 6mo Behind the smallest). As for teeth- yes I agree if it becomes a habit it’s a problem- but if you’re using raw milk then there an equal number of qualified studies that show raw milk has beneficial cofactors to offset the dental concerns- breastmilk especially. Those who brush after formula are right to- but those brushing after nursing are wasting their time (unless you count the acclimation- it Will be easier to brush teeth the earlier and more often you do it!) If it’s only 3 nights- so what and why wake the kid more? But if it were regular, making them brush might end the habit. Mine woke for snack for a few nights. Starting the 2nd night on I insisted she could have snack as long as she brushed after (she has Always Hated brushing, but knows it’ll never be optional). I’m pretty sure the brushing is why her snacking only lasted 3 nights).

  17. Erin Oct 25 at 3:16 am Reply Reply

    My son is doing this right now, he is 19 months, the last 2 nights woke, went to the fridge saying “hungry”. Last night he ate a big bowl of Greek Yogurt, the night before he just nursed (yes I still nurse, he will self ween like my daughter did). Today he looked huge and I am sure it is a growth spurt. My daughter was very different, slept solid at night and during her growth spurts she would pig out but during the day. I think every child is different and society wants us to think our children need to be programmed and we need to control everything even thing that might just be a normal part of their growth., they should be doing this, not that and so on. We are Vegetarian as well and we eat very well but hey, my son is probably just growing. I have had times when I woke up hungry at night before, sometimes I eat other times I just go back to bed.

  18. Nup, don't buy it Jan 30 at 6:37 am Reply Reply

    Sorry – this ‘manipulative habit’ thesis is codswallop in our experience. I strongly reject the author’s certainty. It’s not her child, it’s yours, Dad. 

    We went through a phase like this and it was just a phase. We didn’t offer food, just a bottle of oat milk with coconut oil mixed in (toddler doesn’t have dairy or soy) and a drink of water to wash it down with. He went to sleep afterwards. It lasted months but we have a tall, scrawny 2-year-old so I’m guessing he needed it. And eventually it stopped. 

    I don’t believe in taking credit (or blame) for every single good (or ‘bad’) thing that a child does, but one thing that I am happy about in our case is that I have always gone for gentle. No cold turkeys (adults are such hypocrites- largely unable to go cold turkey on anything themselves but will happily ‘do their kids a favour’ by forcing that approach on them!), no threats, no coercion, no serious consequences. Just co-operation, communication, compromise. And I have a 28 month old child who, in spite of being a nightmare waking-every-hour-or-two baby, is now a thoughtful, responsive, highly communicative, co-operative, sensitive child – the exact OPPOSITE of a terrible two. I’ve never seen a single episode that resembled manipulation or a tantrum. And I’m not the only person who has noticed. Also – I’m not saying it’s attributable solely to our parenting choices, but it is probably a factor. 

    One thought is that maybe he is going to bed slightly early and therefore getting hungry. At the moment my son requires two dinners before bed – 5pm and again at about 7:30 pm. He does to bed at about 8:30 and sleeps all night. 

    Anyway – author’s advice is totally unfounded – not a shred of evidence around her contention that your kid is manipulating you. Make your own decision. If you decide, using your own intuition, that you are being ‘had’, then you can make a plan at that stage. 

    (That reminds me – my MIL used to offer a piece of carrot to her children when they said they were hungry at night .If they ate the carrot and asked for more, she’d assume they were indeed hungry. Might work for you. )

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