Do you have a toddler who is still waking for milk overnight or very early in the morning? You are not alone! In my work as a Certified Pediatric Sleep & Potty Training Consultant I’ve worked with many families who are struggling with wake up calls for milk from their toddler or preschooler. Here are five steps you can take to tame your milk monster and reclaim your family’s sleep.
Tip #1: Ditch the Bedtime Milk Habit
In most cases, an overnight milk habit can be traced to a bedtime milk habit. If your child falls asleep while drinking milk or even if milk is an integral element of the bedtime routine in their mind, this creates a pattern that your child will want to repeat when they wake between sleep cycles (which we all do throughout the night and more often in the early morning hours.) So, your goal is to reset that pattern. Moving milk out of the bedtime routine and out of the room is the first key to eliminating the need for more milk overnight. Try offering milk with dinner and even after dinner but make it a mealtime, daytime thing rather than a sleepy thing.
Tip #2: Put the Milk to “Night-Night”
I know, I know – your toddler will lose their mind when you take that first step. To ease the transition, try my trick of making a big to-do of putting the milk to “night-night” right before you head upstairs for the bedtime routine. Walk with your child to the refrigerator and place the cup or bottle of milk in there together. Then blow kisses to it and say, “Night-night milk. See you in the morning!” If you’re trying to curb a nursing habit, the same trick can apply. Nurse outside of their bedroom and make a big to do of saying goodnight to “the girls” before heading into their room.
If needed, add other elements to the bedtime routine that takes place in their room to replace the step of milk. For example, read books, snuggle while singing songs, and/or walk around to say good night to items in the room. If your child asks or cries for milk, remind them that milk is sleeping, and we need to sleep too.
Tip #3: Choose & Implement a Consistent Response
At the end of that new, milk free bedtime routine, place your child fully awake into their crib and decide how you will support or respond to any upset they express over this change. For example, you might sit with them and hold their hand or rub their back until they fall asleep, weaning off that over time. Or you might pop back into the room at designated intervals to comfort them briefly, weaning off the checks over time. Once you choose your bedtime response, be sure to repeat that same response every time they wake overnight and/or too early each morning. The key to getting your toddler to accept this change happily is to be ultra-consistent from bedtime to wake time.
Tip #4: Offer Morning Milk Outside the Bedroom
Once you make it through the night, another key is to offer your toddler’s morning milk outside the bedroom as well. Remember, we want to communicate that milk doesn’t happen in the bedroom anymore and it is no longer a tool attached to sleep. It will be difficult for your black and white thinker to understand why they can have milk in the room in the morning, but not in the other instances. Think like a toddler and move ALL milk out of the room.
Tip #5: Consider a Toddler Clock
The final step? Consider giving your toddler a tool to understand when it is and is not time to get up and time to have milk. It may seem arbitrary to them why they can’t get up and have milk at 4am but they can at 6am. And, in a blacked-out room, those times can all look and feel the same. A toddler clock solves that by using pictures or colors to signal when it is time to return to sleep and when it is time to get up and go. With time and reinforcement, children 18 months and older can begin to grasp the concept. You might, for example, choose a clock that has pictures of a bunny asleep and awake and program the bunny to wake at or after 6am. Then, when your child wakes overnight or too early in the morning and asks for milk, you can reply, “Bunny is sleeping. Milk is sleeping. You need to sleep too” and implement your non-milk response. And, when they wake in the morning, “Yay! Bunny is awake! Now we can wake up.” Popular clocks include the Kidsleep, Gro, Ok to Wake, and Hatch. There are many options but simpler is better, especially for young toddlers.
With these five tips in place, your milk monster will begin to fall asleep without that crutch and thus be willing and able to return to sleep without it too. If you need support to tackle bedtime battles, night waking, early rising or any other sleep challenge, our team is here to help!
Erica Desper founded Confident Parenting in 2012, as a certified baby and child sleep consultant offering group and private counseling for families struggling to get their baby or child to fall and stay asleep. Erica has supported hundreds of families in and around the Main Line and Philadelphia area and internationally to improve the quality of their families’ sleep. She is also mom to son, Jaiden who, as a baby, was very good at crying and not very skilled in sleeping! She was recently named "Best Sleep Consultant" by the Main Line Parent community and "Family Favorite" Sleep Consultant by the Philadelphia Family community. For more information about sleep or potty training support or her approach and support options, visit www.beaconfidentparent.com
If you’re reading this in the early morning while trying to rock your baby back to sleep, then parents: we stand with you. We’ve all been there, trying to figure out when our restless munchkins will let us catch a few more Z’s. While you can’t predict the exact timing of when your baby’s schedule will normalize, it can be helpful to get a sense of how long most babies sleep, why they wake up, and how to help them.