Toddlers & Midnight Snacks
We 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.
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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.
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.