One of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to getting babies to sleep through the night is the old “cereal in the bottle” routine. It’s been used by parents for generations, and I can understand why it’s so popular. As adults, we know that sleeping on an empty stomach is challenging, to say the least. We also know that staying awake when you’ve just eaten a big, hearty meal is next to impossible. So the notion that a little cereal in baby’s bottle should take longer to digest than breastmilk or formula, which will keep them feeling full for longer, and therefore help them sleep through the night, seems reasonable at face value.
Now, any parent who has experienced a baby who isn’t sleeping well is probably anxious to find the reason why, and is likely to try anything they deem as safe and potentially effective in order to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents who use this trick find that, even if it’s successful at first, the results are only temporary, and here’s the reason why: Once your baby reaches a certain age and weight, (I’ll just use the 6 month mark here as a happy medium) waking in the night isn’t about food. I’ve heard from parents who were getting up with their little ones 8-9 times a night, claiming that their baby was waking that often to eat. Sure, baby might have nursed a little every time they were offered the breast, but that doesn’t mean that they were hungry. What is much more likely is that baby’s become dependent on nursing as a method to get to sleep. After all, if they’ve nursed to sleep every time they’ve woken up for the first six months of their lives, it only makes sense that they won’t be able to get to sleep without that familiar routine.
The cereal in the bottle works on the idea that babies fall asleep at bedtime and don’t wake up until morning, assuming there’s nothing bothering them, but that’s not how sleep works. Not for babies, and not for adults. We all cycle in and out of deep sleep, and at the end of every cycle, we tend to wake up. Maybe not fully, but we do attain a certain level of consciousness. In babies, that cycle is usually about 45 minutes, so even on a good night, they’re going to wake up a lot. And if the only way they know how to get to sleep is by nursing, they’re going to cry to get your attention, and wait for you to come in and help them out.
So if it’s got nothing to do with hunger, how can you help them sleep through the night?
The solution to the issue, not the “hack” or quick fix, but the actual remedy, is teaching your baby to fall asleep independently. That might seem like a tall order for a 6 month old, but I assure you, they’re fully capable of learning this invaluable skill. It’s natural, and they typically take to it faster than you would expect. Lots of babies will babble to themselves for a bit, or rub their feet together, or suck on their fingers, or some combination of all three. Almost every client I’ve worked with has had some new (and often amusing) trick that their baby has adopted as a sleep strategy. Let them discover these strategies on their own, and then let them practice them a little. It’s a skill, and skills take time to master.
Now, I’m not saying that you should leave a crying baby to sort themselves out without any comfort or attention. You should feel free to attend to them, let them know you’re nearby and available, but don’t rock, nurse, or cuddle them until they fall asleep. Let them find a way to do it on their own. That way, when they wake in the night, they’ll have the skills they need to settle back down on their own.