As an infant, it was easy to let your little one nurse or give her a bottle and a cuddle when she woke up in the middle of the night. Now as toddler, she continues waking, guzzling her bottle or nursing until she falls back asleep. Part of the problem, explains Dr. Craig Canapari, noted pediatric sleep expert at Yale New Haven Hospital, is your toddler's body has come to expect food in the middle of the night, meaning she's learned to read her 2 a.m. waking as a sign of hunger. While going "cold turkey" isn't necessarily the answer, it's important to wean your toddler off this schedule before she's ends up in preschool and still waking throughout the night.
Offer a Bedtime Drink and Snack
Although you don't want your toddler to fall asleep with the bottle or nipple in her mouth, "topping her off" just before brushing her teeth with a cup of milk and a small snack can help stave off middle-of-the-night hunger. She'll still probably wake initially, but if she's had a hardy snack before bedtime, it will make it easier to eat less -- and eventually nothing at all -- during the night.
Reduce the Drink
If your toddler normally drinks six or eight ounces of milk after waking in the middle of the night, try cutting down the quantity of fluid by an ounce every other night, recommends Dr. Canapari. If she nurses, stop the session while she's still awake and a few minutes earlier each night. This gradual transition may first be met with resistance -- particularly if she's used to falling asleep while sucking -- but putting her back to sleep in crib when she's drowsy but still awake will help her learn to fall asleep on her own in the future.
Offer a Transition Object
Offering a replacement distraction can help ease this important transition, according to KidsHealth.org. Since most toddlers can safely sleep with blankets and stuffed animals that would pose a suffocation hazards to infants, now is a good time to introduce a special stuffed animal or soft blanket. It won't necessarily prevent her from waking up in the beginning of the weaning process, but the comforting sensation can help her fall asleep faster without a full belly at 2 a.m.
The upshot of weaning a toddler -- as opposed to a 10-month-old -- is that you can explain what's going to happen before you start the weaning process. Say, "You're a big girl now so you don't need to have milk or nurse at night anymore. Instead you're going to get a new lovey or a big-kid bed." Telling her she's going to be drinking less each night lets her know what to expect, so she won't be caught off guard by this change.