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My son is almost 2 years old and he still wakes in the night to drink. I know he is not alone.

As I would like to get a full night's sleep, I have been contemplating watering down his formula to get him to stop expecting food at nighttime.

But here is the thing: he gets a bottle at 8 (of which he usually only drinks 120ml - 4 ounces for you at the other side of the big water). If he wakes around 12 that is 4 hours since his bottle and 5.5 hours since his last solid meal. If he wakes between 2 and 4, it has been 6 to 8 hours since he last ate anything, and only a small bottle at that. Some nights he will wake twice to drink, around midnight and around 4 or 6.

Is it reasonable to expect a small child to go for 10 hours without food? I know that some kids do sleep through the night but how common or even healthy is it?

I am a grown up with plenty of reserves, for me it is no problem to sleep 10 hrs if I would get the chance or to skip a meal. But he is growing (fast), his metabolism is fast and he has little reserves.

Maybe instead of striving to cut out the night drinking altogether, I should try to make sure it is only one bottle somewhere between 2 and 4?

EDIT: From the answers I conclude that toddlers can sleep all night without extra milk and that the way to achieve this is to make the evening bottle into a small meal with extra solid food. This leads me to conclude the problem is in the daytime feeding schedule: evening meal is at 6:30 (on daycare days we are rarely at home before 6). Evening bottle is at 8, 8:30. At this point he is not very hungry yet so only drinks about 2/3. Breakfast is around 8. But with all the drinking, he is not very hungry in the morning.

Additional question: When toddlers sleep through the night, how are the following spaced:

  1. dinner
  2. evening snack and/or bottle
  3. breakfast
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    I have to say I'm a bit surprised to learn that people still feed toddlers formula as a primary meal at nearly 2 years old. Attachment parenting I understand (which involves breastfeeding until a relatively advanced age, such as 5 years old), but formula at 2 seems a bit unusual to me. How much does he eat that isn't formula? What's his normal meal schedule and quantity eaten? – Joe Jul 8 '15 at 14:40
  • @Joe > My pediatrician advises formula up to the age of 3 and advises a daily 500ml of formula, splitted onto morning and evening bottles. Clearly not the "primary meal", but still of importance though... – Laurent S. Jul 8 '15 at 15:43
  • Interesting. I wonder if it's a cultural thing (US here). I do remember this question; my research there did not support there being significant value to "toddler milk" (aka, formula). – Joe Jul 8 '15 at 15:46
  • I realized discussing with expatriated friends (to the US) that recently got a baby that there is a huge cultural gap between raising child in the US and here (Belgium). This must be one evidence more :-) Here you find formulas for various ages up to 3 or more in each supermaket. having looked at the label I realized there wasn't that much difference so I ask the pediatrician (cause looking at the bill, there's definitely a difference ^_^). Apparently it's no big deal, but still better if you can afford cause children don't produce some nutriments the same way adults do. – Laurent S. Jul 8 '15 at 15:54
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    We alternate milk and formula, whichever is in the house. Here in the Netherlands 300 ml of dairy is recommended for 2 yr olds. This could be milk, formula, yoghurt .. – Ivana Jul 9 '15 at 15:43
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It is totally reasonable to expect him to do a full night. Our 2.5 girl has been doing full nights since she was 4 months or so, and here (Belgium, but France too for what I know) it is considered usual for a kid to sleep all night before he is 1. I know it's quite different in the USA for example, and anyway all kids don't follow the same pattern... but I was already happy after 4 months so I can only imagine how impatient you can be

Now about your issue, you will first have to identify why he is waking up. If it's indeed because of hunger, my advice would be to feed him more. You can do this either by adding some "matter" in the bottle : make it a banana formula-shake, add some biscuit powder or there even exists some powder to make it more "thick" (sorry if that's not clear, english is not my main language), either by proposing an "extra" to the bottle: my girl usually eats a small milk bread with either cheese, jam, nutella or even some meat. At first we had to propose her, now we really can't forget about it else she makes us understand :-)

Be carefull, but you probably have noticed that already, that babies quickly take (bad) habits, so it might aswell be he's used to it. Maybe if you let him cry without waking up or feeding him, he will just stop in a matter of days. That sometimes can be very surprising.

  • When does your girl eat dinner and when breakfast? Our son eats dinner around 6:30 (we're in the Netherlands), so he is not very hungry at 8/8:30 and only drinks 120ml of the 180 ml bottle. Then in the morning he should have breakfast around 8, but he is usually not very hungry with all the night snacks. – Ivana Jul 9 '15 at 15:33
  • The approximate daily program is as follow. 6:30-7:00 wake up, bottle +- 300ml + when she asks a small milkbread with nutella or jam. 11:00 soup or another rather healthy snack. 12:30 meal with proteins (meat, fish, eggs - 30g), carbs (potatoes, pastas, rice, ...) and vegetables. 13:30-15:00 nap time 15:00 fruits 17:30 waffle, milkbread, biscuits, baby carrots, ... 19:00 bottle +- 200ml 19:30-20:00 going to bed. Seems quite similar to what you're offering, ours even eat a lighter meal than yours in the evening... – Laurent S. Jul 9 '15 at 23:44
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While most two-year-olds should not be waking because of hunger in the middle of the night, every person's metabolism is different. That said, do you have reason to suspect his is higher than most? Does he run around more than his peers, does he eat more, is he thinner, or is he growing faster? Otherwise he just may have gotten into the habit of getting his calories then.

Either way, you can change this. If you truly think he has a higher metabolism, you need to change what he is getting right before bed to something with more calories, then try to change his sleep pattern. Otherwise I'd consider it a sleep training issue only, for which there are many different suggestions already presented on this web site.

My daughter has a super high metabolism. Looking back at things like her growth patterns and her ability to maintain body temperature through morning -- though she is a very heavy sleeper and always slept through the night -- I think she should have had more calories before going to bed. (Children do a lot of their growing during sleep, when the brain releases human growth hormone.) Instead of the 1-2 cups of milk before teeth-brushing and bedtime, I probably should have been giving her a high calorie shake.

  • What i meant is: toddlers have a much highre metabolism that grown-ups. I do think changing the feeding schedule so he eats more during the day/evening is the way to go. See edit. – Ivana Jul 9 '15 at 15:59
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No, toddlers should not (regularly) drink milk or formula during the night.

The major reason for this is tooth decay. Toddlers have a fairly full set of teeth, and formula in particular has a lot of plain old sugar in it. Putting them to bed with a bottle, or even feeding them immediately before they sleep for 4-6 hours, is bad for their teeth, and can lead to early cavities. (And, yes, toddlers even as young as two can have cavities.)

Now, on a very infrequent basis, is this a problem? No, of course not. One night's milk isn't going to make any teeth fall out. But doing it every day, or most days, is a bad idea.

As far as stopping, I would follow advice provided on this site for younger children; basically, just stop the feedings (perhaps with an initial explanation) and simply comfort your child back to sleep. Yes, a child that age should be able to sleep 8-10 hours in a stretch without food. They have plenty of reserves, and their metabolism slows significantly during sleep.

I would remove formula entirely (unless the pediatrician has reasons otherwise of course) - as per this question, it's unnecessary - and replace with milk, and additional solid food. Regular, solid food will sit in the stomach longer and help feel full longer. He also may be waking up wanting formula because it's sweet and tastes good.

I would also verify that the child isn't waking up thirsty. If the room is very air-conditioned or very warm - both common in the summer - the child may be getting dehydrated. Feel his saliva level when he wakes, make sure his mouth isn't very dry. Also see how he sleeps - if he's a mouth breather still at that age he may be getting a dry mouth as a result.

  • Tooth decay is also a concern, yes. When he wakes up thirsty, he asks for water. I think the issue is in the timing of dinner, last snack/bottle before bed and breakfast, see edit. – Ivana Jul 9 '15 at 15:35
  • "I would also verify that the child isn't waking up thirsty" +1. Big difference! Mouth breathing is also, as you stated, a wake-up problem. The time to check for dehydration, though, is in the day time unless the child is ill. :) – anongoodnurse Jul 10 '15 at 3:18
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That's really a big difference between US and Europe. Here in the US we are on solid food at 6 months and milk whenever you stop breast feeding (12 mo - 18 mo). The biggest problem you have is you need to brush his teeth again after that bottle. We stopped midnight feedings probably at 1 year. I think you just need to show some tough love if you don't want to continue the nightly feedings and tooth brushing anymore.

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I wouldn't say that toddlers 'should' drink milk at night but I think it's pretty normal that they would want to. The natural age for weaning (ie stopping breastfeeding) for children is around 3-5 years old and since formula is generally used as a substitute for breastfeeding, I would expect that children may continue to want it until a similar age. Night feeds are important for a mother to maintain her milk supply as that's when the breastfeeding hormones are highest. Therefore I would say that your son is doing what comes naturally to him. He doesn't know the difference between how formula and breastmilk work. I know many people whose children continued to feed at night well past being a baby.

Here are a couple of interesting articles about the age of natural weaning: http://www.naturalchild.org/guest/norma_jane_bumgarner2.html

http://www.llli.org/ba/aug94.html

They are talking about breastfeeding rather than formula so it won't be the same but I think it's an interesting point to start thinking about how children wean if allowed to do it in their own time.

On the other hand there are plenty of toddlers and even few month old babies who don't drink milk at night and manage fine so it's not generally necessary for toddlers to drink milk at night. If it doesn't suit your lifestyle - you need to work in the day rather than stay home and take a nap with the toddler, then there are ways to reduce and eventually stop night milk. However, it usually takes some effort and involve some upset to the toddler. Whilst going through the process, I think it's helpful to remember that your son is not asking for milk to be annoying and it's not just a bad habit, it's a natural and common desire so be gentle with him.

You may also need to think about working the other way round - reducing the milk to increase the daytime food intake. If your son drinks a lot of milk at night, he may not feel that hungry in the day to increase his food intake.

I certainly understand why you want to stop the night milk, I also have a night feeding toddler and would like a full night's sleep and have tried various ways to encourage that. But I wanted to offer an alternative view to the one which is popular now, that babies 'should' sleep through the night from a young age. I believe this is more a result of current parenting styles, particularly the popularity of sleep training rather than what comes naturally to the child.

  • 1
    You state, "The natural age for weaning... is around 3-4 years..." Could you please supply a source for this statement? – anongoodnurse Jul 10 '15 at 3:15

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