When a toddler or preschooler is still using a bottle to go to sleep, there are two patterns that must be overcome. First, she has chosen the bottle as her special comfort object to help her with the transition from a wakeful state to a sleep state. Secondly, this choice has become a deeply ingrained habit. Weaning her from the bottle will require either finding an effective substitute, or using tremendous force to break the patterns.
Here are some gentle suggestions:
- Set a date in the near future, perhaps her birthday, and offer her an exciting opportunity. To celebrate this milestone, she can collect all her bottles, take them to a local store, and trade them in for something that would be thrilling to her (perhaps a small bicycle — something that will make her feel more grown up). If she excitedly looks forward to the date, she may be able to sacrifice the bottle in order to enter a new phase. Only communicate in a way that builds her security and self-esteem: You are excited about who she is; you will be excited about who she becomes.
- If you are not able to enlist her resources directly, weaning the bedtime bottle can be accomplished by substitution. Replace the bottle with a more age-appropriate transition/comfort object. Make the alternative as attractive as possible, while making the bottle less attractive.
- This new transition to sleep might include a consistent bedtime ritual, when you spend about 20 minutes together doing the same nighttime activities in the same order.
- Give her something wonderful to hold as she sleeps. A large stuffed animal (about the same size she is), or a really great doll that she falls in love with, would be a good choice. Put away other stuffed animals or dolls for a while; she will form a more special bond when she only has one or two.
- You may also want to make a tape or CD recording of your voice singing to her or telling her stories. Listening to you repeat the same stories or songs night after night will comfort your child as she drifts off to sleep.
- To make the bottle less attractive, try adding a drop of ‘bitter apple’ on the nipple or actually in the bottle (available in pet stores to teach pets not to chew). A small amount will give the bottle a mildly bitter or musty taste, making it a less important part of the sleep transition. Many children will stop asking for the bottle within one to two weeks.
- Offer milk (or something else to drink) in a cup at the beginning of the bedtime ritual — before reading a story, taking a bath, or brushing her teeth. Reduce the amount she gets in her bottle by 0.5 to 1.0 ounces a day until it is empty, and then take the bottle away.
- Respond to requests for the bottle with hugs.