All parents must face the task of weaning their children from a bottle at some point, but when is the best time to do it? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doing it by the time healthy children are 15 months. If there are significant concerns regarding the child’s health and nutrition, it is always advised to check with a child’s pediatrician before weaning from the bottle.
One important reason to wean off the bottle early is to avoid dental problems. Prolonged bottle drinking can damage teeth. Most liquids other than water have the potential to decalcify teeth which can lead to cavities. Dental deformities and alignment problems may also occur with prolonged bottle use. While dental issues are concerning enough, there are many more reasons to wean children from a bottle early on.
For otherwise healthy children, by the time they are 12 months old they usually have the skills to sit up, hold a cup and drink from it, and eat solid foods. At this point the bottle is not needed for nutrition. Bottle drinkers tend to drink more milk than what is recommended, which can interfere with appetite. This can lead to children not wanting to eat enough solid foods. Without an adequate amount of solid foods, nutritional deficiencies can arise such as an iron deficiency. In addition to nutritional risks, there are developmental risks that may arise. If a child does not want to eat solid foods because she is full from her bottle, she is missing out on important developmental experiences associated with eating and feeding such as learning to chew efficiently, self-feeding skills, and tolerating a variety of sensory experiences related to eating.
It should be noted that the keys about weaning from pacifiers are similar to weaning from bottles. In addition to dental concerns, pacifiers can also interfere with speech development. Children may not say words when they otherwise would have if their mouth wasn’t blocked by the pacifier. If children do try to speak with their pacifier, they may be missing out on good opportunities to correctly practice the mouth and tongue movements needed to make their words come out correctly.
While health and development are motivating factors for parents to take into consideration, avoiding power struggles and tantrums can be just as motivating. Another convincing reason to wean children from the bottle and pacifier early is that children at 12 months old are less stubborn and take more of an interest in pleasing caregivers than kids even 6 months older at 18 months. As children get older they develop more independence, autonomy and emotional attachments. This means as children get older, they can develop a stronger emotional attachment to their bottle/pacifier and will likely be more stubborn when caregivers try to get rid of it. If parents wait until 18 months to wean their children off these objects, the battles will be more intense than beginning to wean 6-8 months earlier.
Tips for weaning off the bottle and pacifier
Starting somewhere between 6 and 9 months, let children drink from a sippy cup (or at least hold and play with it) so when the bottle is gone they will already be acquainted with the cup. Using a cup as a toy during bath time is a great way for children to practice holding a cup. It may be good to try an open cup for practicing drinking during bath time. That way, if the child spills the mess will pour right into the tub. When parents are introducing and offering a cup, offer all types of liquids in the cup. Do not offer only juice in the cup and milk in the bottle, otherwise children may learn to only accept milk from a bottle.
Once families are ready to make the transition they can start by decreasing the number of bottles offered one at a time and replacing them with a cup or snack. Start by eliminating the least important bottles first. This is usually during the middle of the day. Kids may be more motivated to drink from their cup if it is more appealing to them. Some ways to make the cup more appealing is to allow the children to choose the cup, decorate it or try a fun straw with the cup. Bedtime bottles are typically the most difficult to eliminate. For bedtime bottle weaning, try first reducing the amount in the bottle. If the child wants more to drink, the bottle can be replaced by a cup. Replacing the comfort factor of the bottle at bedtimes can be tricky. Families could try to use toys or objects of affection, and provide other comforting activities during the bedtime routine such as a story or massage.
Families can use similar strategies to wean children off their pacifier. Offering an alternative for comfort such as a blanket, toy or cuddling may help this transition. It is important that once a child is weaned off of bottles and pacifiers that they are removed from sight. For some families this means throwing them away or donating them. In some instances, families may wish to save these items for future children or family members. In these instances, it is important the bottles and pacifiers are packed away where the children will not see them and the caregivers will not be tempted to bring them back out.
The weaning process may be easy for some and difficult for others. Avoid extra and unnecessary road blocks by starting the weaning process early. The benefits of weaning early definitely outweigh the risks of prolonged bottle and pacifier use. If families have questions along the way they can always ask their pediatrician, dentist or early intervention providers for support and advice.
By Lindsey White OT
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Weaning from the bottle. Retrieved from http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/aap-press-room-media- center/Pages/Weaning-from-the-Bottle.aspx
Health & Human Services Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska. (2013). Weaning from the bottle for better health. Retrieved from http://hhs.muni.org/wic/weaning_from_bottle.aspx
Kim West. (2014). Baby sleep help: How to wean your child from the bottle. Retrieved from www.sleeplady.com/baby-sleep/how-to-wean-your-child-from-the-bottle/
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2011). Pacifiers: Are they good for your baby? Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/pacifiers/ART-20048140