How to Wean Baby Off a Bottle: 7 Tips for Moms

Babies and bottles go together like Bert and Ernie ... which is why when the time comes to wean baby off the bottle, kids can act as though you've ripped out their heart and served it for dinner. But it doesn't have to be that way; if you start weaning at the right time and throw in a few tricks and incentives, transitioning a baby from bottle to cup can be surprisingly smooth sailing.

With a little advice from the experts, your baby may be kicking the bottle before you know it. 

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1. Reserve the bottle for mealtime. Step one to weaning is to prevent the bottle from becoming a transitional object in the first place, says Dr. Sara Connolly, a pediatrician at Bundoo.com. "That means the bottle should only be used for meals and not be carried around all day like a stuffed animal. When the baby sees the bottle as a functional object and not a security blanket, then it is much easier to part with it when it is time to wean. Never put a baby to bed with a bottle. It creates a very bad habit that is hard to break, is bad for the teeth, and can lead to increased ear infections."

2. Start early. As in 4 months old early. "At 4 months, baby's 'tongue thrust reflex' diminishes, so she can accept many more foreign objects (such as a cup)," says Dr. Cheryl Wu, a pediatrician in New York who recommends starting the sippy cup at that time. "Also her head control increases, so she won't choke on liquid that slowly dribbles into her mouth from a cup, rather than liquid produced by suction, which is coupled with the action of swallowing."

Since at this early stage baby is still learning how to wrangle a cup and can't grab it with both hands, "start off with a cup with two handles on each side, and a soft spout with slow flow," Wu advises. By about 6 months of age, babies can grasp that cup with both hands and can graduate to other models.

3. Introduce the cup as a toy. "Let's face it: we are all agitated when we are hungry," says Jill Vetstein, a certified infant and toddler teacher. When agitated, our coping mechanisms are compromised. It is unlikely that an agitated baby is going to easily make a change."

Instead, introduce the cup in non-stressful times such as play time rather than when they're hungry. "Start out by having it available to explore with out liquid in it," Vetstein suggests. A game of peekaboo or tickling baby with a cup will help your baby associate the cup with something positive."

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"Once your baby seems to like the cup, then introduce it during play with the liquid of choice in it, perhaps milk," says Vetstein. "Your baby will likely put it in his or her mouth during play. Your baby may be surprised by the fluid but will not mind as much because he or she has already gotten used to the smell of the cup and the feel of the cup in his hands. Once your baby is comfortable with the cup and has tasted the liquid without getting mad, then you can introduce it during feeding time. It's like your desensitizing your baby."

4. Ease them into it. Once the child is comfortable with a cup, replace one bottle feed with formula, breast milk, or milk (if they are over a year) in the cup.

"For example, if they are accustomed to drinking a 4-ounce bottle after a nap, change it to 4 ounces in a cup," says Connolly. "Continue to do this until all bottle meals are replaced by drinking from the cup." By about 12 months of age, it's time to fully transition the baby from the bottle to the cup. "Baby may refuse for a little at first, but just keep offering the cup, and her milk intake should slowly increase up to what's normal for age," says Wu.

5. Experiment with liquids. Some babies will balk at drinking milk or formula out of a cup since they usually get that from a bottle. If so, try water in the cup instead. Or if your baby balks at water, try milk or formula, or this sneak attack by Jess Miller, a nanny of 14 years and writer at BabyPit.com: "Give your baby a bottle of half milk and half water alongside a sippy cup of undiluted milk," she says. "Make sure you try to give your baby a drink from the cup before handing over the bottle."

From there, Miller suggests gradually adding more water (and less milk) to the baby bottle until it is an almost flavorless mixture each day. "Eventually your baby will give up the flavorless milk and go for the delicious tasting undiluted milk in the cup. Once this happens, no longer give your baby the bottle," she says. 

Or just let your baby keep using his baby bottle, but rather than milk (or other favorite drink), only use the baby bottle for water. "With time your little one will associate the cup with tastier drinks and forgo the bottle altogether," Miller says.

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6. Find sources of comfort for baby other than the bottle. If your toddler is over the age of 1 and stubbornly clings to his bottle despite your best efforts to wean, face facts: that bottle is a source of security. "They've learned that drinking out of the bottle equals comfort or sleepy time, and it induces a sense of well-being," explains Wu. "Parents must learn ways to replace this comfort measure." For a child over 1, try a lovey or a stuffed animal while drinking the bottle, and add in being rocked by Mom or Dad to associate the new transitional object with comfort. Then try taking the bottle away and see if the transitional object does the trick.

"This object can be anything the child becomes attached to," Wu adds. "One baby I treated wanted to hold onto individual packets of baby wipes whenever he got upset! Just make sure it's not a choking hazard."

7. Celebrate this milestone with rewards or a "weaning party." "For kids over 2 to 3 who can understand actions and consequences, it may be appropriate to set up a reward system," says Wu. "One idea is a sticker chart for every day that the child doesn't need the bottle to go to sleep, or small prizes for every night the child doesn't use the bottle all day."

Many parents have "weaning parties" where they ceremoniously throw out the bottles, give them to charity, or send a care package to a "poor baby" somewhere who doesn't have a bottle. "The stress here is that the child is now a 'big boy' or a 'big girl,' so it empowers and encourages them to want to give up the bottle on their own," says Wu.

How did you wean your baby off the bottle?

 

Images via © Tim Pannell/Corbis

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