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Bottle Weaning, Sleep Training & Other Baby Battles

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I’m not sure if this is appropriate for the Advice Smackdown or Bounce Back – but was hoping that you could point my sleep-deprived ass in the right direction on sleep training. I, like you, have two boys – one is 4 1/2 and the other just turned a year (OMG!). We were so lucky with our first – he was a GREAT sleeper from about 10 weeks old. We had the occasional hiccup due to growth spurts, teething, etc., but he always got back on an all night schedule with little intervention from us. So – of course, when #2 came along, we were all smug – like, “oh we totally make great sleepers – no need for sleep training here!” Such ignorant asses!

Baby #2 started out with such promise! Sleeping through the night at about 12-14 weeks, an early riser, admittedly, but would go back down after a 6 a.m. bottle. Ok, no problem, I can handle that. Except – it has gotten so much worse and I don’t know how to even begin to sleep train, because, of course, we never had to deal with it before. I’ve looked at some of the books out there, but they don’t seem to get to the point – I just want directions, not a bunch of up front rhetoric about whyyyy the baby isn’t sleeping – just tell me how to FIX IT! (ok, maybe a little irrational – it is the lack of sleep!).

Anyway – back to the matter at hand. Baby #2 started waking up multiple times during the night – probably due to teething, as his two front teeth have been threatening to come in for weeks (we can see them, but they still haven’t cut through). And we are struggling to get him to go back down w/o a bottle. Of course, this started in the midst of some super stressful work times for my husband and I, and getting sleep is the only way we are able to get through it all right now, so we started just giving him a bottle in his crib, which puts him back to bed (longest sentence ever). But – I also know that is a terrible habit, is bad for his teeth, etc., and now we are struggling to break it and I just don’t know where to start. Things have gotten a little better in that he only really wakes up once in the middle of the night, but he is full on awake, hysterical and un-soothable – all at once with no warning squawks that can alert us so we can head it off with a paci or anything. The ONLY thing that calms him down is a bottle. The other issue we are dealing with is that we live in a super tiny house, and my boys’ rooms are separated by a J&J bathroom, so if the crying goes on for too long, it wakes up my older son, which, no…just, no.

He goes to bed consistently at the same time every night, we keep the room as dark as possible and make sure he is not too hot or cold, and keep the outside noise as minimal as possible. And he tends to be waking up at the same time too (right now it is around 4:30 a.m.). I am assuming that this is just a hellacious growth spurt, combined with prolonged teething, and we have to just ride it out, but really want to stop the middle of the night bottles, heck, even the pre-bedtime bottle should probably go too.

There are so many sleep training books, sites, fountains of advice out there on this topic, that I was hoping you could give me some ideas on how to start? Tips that work for you?

The upside of this is, my son sleeps at daycare with no bottle (not even a paci), so I know he can do it. We just have to break the at-home habits.

Can you help?

Forever in your debt (if this works),

Ah, sleep training. The LEAST one-size-fits-all parenting topic of all time, with an added scoop of CONTROVERSY on top. Hooray! Let’s see if I can avoid stepping on any land mines here.

We never committed to one single particular book on sleep habits either — like you, I was somewhat overwhelmed by all the choices (and the LENGTH, I mean, if my kid isn’t sleeping, I probably don’t have the time, energy or focus to devote to a 700-page tome ABOUT SLEEPING), and found that too many authors turned sleep into a moral high ground. This isn’t just something to try, this is The Way To Do It. Everything else is wrong, cruel, stupid, or all three.

The best theory on sleep, however, that I ever heard was via Ask Moxie: there are two kinds of babies. Some release tension through crying, while others escalate their tension when they cry. It made sense to me with Noah, who was a tension-releaser. It made even more sense to me with Ezra, who is a tension-escalator. (Well, he’s not an ESCALATOR, like at the mall, but…oh, you know what I mean.)

A tension-releaser is the “fuss-it-out” baby. I would put Noah down in his crib and he would protest. I would walk away and hear him cry, but if I immediately went back to pick him up, it was like I reset some clock and BAM, he’d be wide awake but overtired and MAD AS HELL. But if I left him alone, his cries would never turn into wails or screams, but would instead decelerate into sniffles, then some low whining, then silence. This process never took more than five or 10 minutes. If it did take longer, it was a sure-fire sign of teething or a growth spurt.

Ezra, now. Ho ho ho. When he cries, he ramps up from zero to HOLY CRAP WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE OF BLEEDING EARDRUMS in no time. There was no putting him in the crib and walking away…at first. He required weeks and months of a carefully calibrated routine. Bath. Swaddling. Breast. Song. Rocking. A careful walk down a darkened hallway into a darkened room, into the crib at that perfect not-totally-asleep-but-not-fully-awake state, along with the perfect combination of familiar toys and loveys and music. If anything went wrong along the way, there was little to be done except start over and head back to the rocking chair. We tried pacis, white noise machines, arm-free swaddles, no swaddle, massage, teething tablets — anything to help ensure that once he was asleep he’d stay asleep. Because once he was up, he was UP. And LOUD.

Like you, we occasionally resorted to bad habits — that bottle in bed is so easy! so tempting! — and were always more tempted to give into them whenever Ezra hit a teething jag or growth spurt that caused middle-of-the-night wake-ups. And you should have seen our pediatrician’s face when I admitted that Ezra still took a bottle at bedtime (even though we’d eliminated the rest) at 13 months old. Every full month of bottles — even just one bottle a day — past 12 months, she lectured, averaged into one cavity by three years old. Babies falling asleep with bottles by themselves in bed: EVEN WORSE. Full-on bottle rot tooth decay. Just do it, she advised sympathetically. Like a Band-Aid. But that was pretty much the extent of her advice. How we eliminated the bottle was up to us.

Now. There are two main schools of sleep training. Those who think that crying is okay and natural and part of the learning process…and those who think that parents should never, ever let their babies cry. I am…somewhere in the middle, because I’ve had BOTH kinds of criers. Noah needed to fuss, and sometimes that fussing did cross the line into crying, but not really. Rushing to his side over every squawk prevented him from sleeping. That said, I cannot imagine attempting to sleep-train a very young baby, nor could I allow my baby to cry to the point of hysterics. So I guess we go for a low-cry solution.

The The No-Cry Sleep Solution is a very popular book, and I agree with a lot of it. It’s a really gentle, good place to start, if you can tolerate a little bit of the “reasons and theories and whhhhyyyyys” behind difficulties in changing up baby’s sleep routine. Your baby thinks he needs to suck on that bottle to sleep. He is convinced of it. With every bottle you give him at night, you are reinforcing this belief. You need to show him that he doesn’t, while recognizing that the desire to suck and receive comfort ARE normal, healthy things that should not be denied. My problem with it only comes when you’re dealing with a hellaciously stubborn baby who will accept every tip in the book…and then still freak out and cry as soon as you leave the room. Eventually, by focusing on the whole DO NOT LET YOUR BABY CRY EVER aspect, you may buckle and cave and end up kind of being inconsistent. (I did, anyway.)

So…look, I’ve spent too long detailing our situation because while I think your son and Ezra are similar, they are still different kids with different needs and causes to underlying sleep issues. You could definitely be dealing with a terrible teething/growth spurt convergence of terror and the only way through it is through it. But…it is time to cut out those bottles. You know it, so…here comes my totally non-professional advice on bottle-weaning a tension-escalating baby….

During the day, offer all liquids in a sippy cup — preferably one that is the least like a bottle you can find. Straws are better for their mouth muscles and early speech, so if you’re still using spouted cups, try getting him to use a straw instead. Some soothing milk or formula before bed is fine — in a cup, and brush those teeth and gums. Always put him in his crib while he’s still awake (bedtime and naptime) so he gets plenty of practice at putting himself to sleep.

When he wakes up in the middle of the night, offer a bottle of water. (We skipped this and offered a slightly bottle-like sippy cup of water because Ezra was very particular about ONLY accepting milk in a bottle at this point.) If he refuses the water, try a pacifier. We just leave the water in the crib, but the The No-Cry Sleep Solution makes a good point about pacis (Ezra is a thumbsucker) — they fall out and the crying starts again. Let him suck on the paci until he’s calm and about to fall asleep, then break the seal and remove it, thus working towards that goal of self-soothing without any aids. Don’t make a lot of noise or fuss over him — say simple stuff like “Night-night” or “goodnight.” Turn on a soother toy that he can also activate himself or hand him a lovey.

Now, here’s where we personally deviated from the strict no-cry aspect. Wait outside the door with a stopwatch. With Noah, we gave him five minutes, then 10. Ezra…got shorter increments at first, like one or two. The idea is to remain firm that there will be no bottle but to still get in there and distract them before the crying escalates to hysterics. Go back in and repeat the same motions. Offer the water, paci, back pats and night-nights. Leave again. Wait three minutes. Repeat. Continue, upping the time each round.

I won’t lie. He’s going to (seemingly) HATE YOU. And life, and the universe, and everything, that first night. You may make more trips into his room than you thought possible. (Therefore, my advice is also to start training on a Friday night, when you have nothing to do and nowhere to go on Saturday and Sunday.) You will want to cave and give him the bottle, because he’s upset and you’re exhausted. It’s hard, because you can’t explain to him about the effect of lactose sugars on his oral health and that self-soothing and healthy sleep habits are important life-long skills that he will be grateful for. You just have to explain it to yourself.

We did the middle-of-the-night feeding first, then the bedtime bottle. You might want to do the bedtime bottle first, since you’ll be more awake/alert/patient to deal with the fallout. The middle-of-the-night one was worse for us, but we really only went through two nights of constant attempts at milkless soothing before turning the corner. It helped that Ezra HAD proven that he could sleep through the night without it, then had a teething/growth spurt regression right after he weaned from nursing, so the bottle habit wasn’t super-ingrained. (I remember Googling sleep stuff at one point and reading message boards full of parents attempting to justify why their four-year-olds still took bottles at night and practically tossing every bottle out the window right then and there, because NO THANK YOU.)

Moving his bedtime up by one hour earlier seemed to help immensely, as did putting a light-up/musical toy that he could turn on himself (without standing or sitting up, like something attached to the crib slats). Noah was the opposite, though — he slept better with a later bedtime and never had a blanket or special toy, and only loved his crib aquarium. No matter what sleep training method you “choose,” there’s going to be a lot of refining and trial-and-error for your particular baby. (I’m sure I’ll get flamed for even suggesting ANY crying, though I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not talking about withholding any and all comfort while they sob hysterically through the night.)

By the way, I was convinced that the bedtime bottle was going to be a battle. I mean, the ROUTINE! He needed his ROUTINE! The ROUTINE was all that stood between us an newborn-like round-the-clock wakings, right? But I did what our pediatrician told us to do — like a Band-Aid. We offered milk in a sippy cup during our song and bedtime story, then brushed his teeth and put him to bed. And…it was totally fine. The war I’d braced myself for never really came.

He still takes his water to bed, and needs his Taggies blanket, BlaBla cat AND musical seahorse (Update on 3/1/14: watch this news report about potential safety hazards for this toy I’m sure one day we’ll be fighting to curb the thumbsucking habit and then one day after THAT we’ll be explaining why it’s time to give up the loveys.

But in the meantime, I’m just gonna go ahead and enjoy some guilt-free uninterrupted nights of sleep.


Published December 14, 2009. Last updated March 12, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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