My toddler, Juliette, has never been a great sleeper. She fights closing her eyes like her life depends on it. (She’s also the most stubborn kid I’ve ever met, so maybe this just comes with the territory.) We have tried so many methods for better sleep—I have a shelf full of books by experts—but from babyhood on, the only thing that could coax her into nodding off was a bedtime bottle. So it’s probably no surprise that when I started researching this story, the same week Juliette turned two and a half, she was still taking a bottle every night.
My older daughter, Sophie, now five, gave up the bottle abruptly when she was almost two. I was pregnant with Juliette then, and we were talking a lot about Soph being a sister and helping with the new baby. One day she declared that she was a “big girl,” and started using her bottle to feed her dolls instead. That was that—she never went back. I figured Juliette would do the same thing when she was ready, but every attempt to persuade her to give it up ended in hours of tears and no sleep for anyone. I knew she wouldn’t head to college with her beloved bottle in hand, but I wondered at what age bottles might become harmful.
Michael Dickinson, a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB, is a firm believer in removing bottles as early as possible. He encourages families in his practice to start the weaning process around one year of age. “I don’t think there’s anything particularly positive to bottle-feeding past 15 months,” says Dickinson. “In fact, kids who drink from a bottle tend to drink too much milk—much more than the recommended intake for children of this age. That’s when you start to run the risk of things like obesity, constipation and iron deficiency.” For ages two to three, Canada’s Food Guide suggests only two cups (500 millilitres) of milk per day; otherwise, they’re likely getting too much of their caloric intake from milk and may even be missing other foods with important vitamins and minerals, like iron.
Kids who have bottles before bed as part of their routine tend to be more prone to night waking, too, and will often ask for another bottle before they can drift off again—the bottle has become a sleep association. (The bottle-guzzling tyrant in my house would wake at 3 a.m. and ask for “just a tiny milky.”) Dickinson says that step one is to swap the bedtime bottle for a sippy cup (or, better still, a regular cup). Sippy cups tend to be lower in volume, and don’t have nipples. “Kids taking bottles at an older age aren’t drinking because they’re thirsty; they’re drinking because they like the sensation of the nipple in their mouth,” says Dickinson.
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Ari Katsnelson, a family dentist in Toronto, would prefer milk wasn’t part of bedtime at all. “Decay is a big problem,” says Katsnelson. “Baby teeth are smaller and have a smaller amount of enamel, so when the sugar in milk sits on the teeth all night and turns into acids, you can end up with serious erosion. Water is the better bet for drinking at bedtime.” (If you aren’t ready to break the bottle habit yet, be sure you’re brushing your kid’s teeth post-milk.) Katsnelson also recommends switching to a cup as soon as possible. “The longer a child has the bottle in his mouth each day, the more we worry about the effects on the teeth. Like a soother, anything a child keeps in his mouth for four to six hours a day can cause issues with bite—mainly an anterior open bite, where the front teeth don’t come together properly.” But the good news is, when the offending object—like a bottle—is removed, the teeth can sometimes self-correct. The sooner you can kick the habit, the more likely the bite will naturally fix itself.
So how can you help your little one lose the bottle? It may sound daunting, but Dickinson recommends going cold turkey. “Throw the bottles out—all of them, at one time. Kids somehow know when there’s one in the cupboard at 2 a.m., when your resolve is low. If there’s no option, they’ll adapt quicker.”
For a more gradual approach, Dickinson suggests diluting the milk a little more each night, until the bottle is all water. Some kids may lose interest when milk is removed from the equation, though this isn’t always the case.
After completing the research for this story, I decided it was time to turf our bottles once and for all. My husband and I steeled ourselves for several nights of screaming and sleeplessness, but it didn’t come to that. We replaced the bottle with a sippy cup of water one night when we were staying at my parents’ house—we explained to Juliette that there aren’t any bottles at Nonna and Poppa’s—and she bought it. She did ask for a bottle a few more times at bedtime that week, but by night seven, “tiny milky” was a thing of the past. Now, on to the pacifier.