Is Your Formerly Nursing Baby Refusing to Breastfeed?

Photography: Poppy Peterson Photography

By Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC

If your baby is younger than one year, even if she seems to be losing interest in breastfeeding, chances are she is not yet ready to wean. After all, during their first twelve months babies still physically need mother’s milk. If your baby was nursing well and suddenly refuses your breast, this may be what some call a nursing strike. Besides baby’s age, another clue that a nursing strike is not a natural weaning is that baby is unhappy about it. A nursing strike usually lasts two to four days, but it may last as long as ten days. It may take some ingenuity plus the following insights and suggestions to help a striking baby go back to breastfeeding.

What to Do

When a baby completely refuses the breast, focus first on two things:

  1. Expressing your milk
  2. Feeding the baby

Pump as often as baby was breastfeeding. This avoids uncomfortable breast fullness and helps maintain your milk production. Ideally, if your baby isn’t nursing at all, a double electric breast pump will make this faster and easier and will be more likely to keep up your supply.

Feed your baby your milk. How you feed it depends in part on your baby’s age. A sippy cup is a good choice for a baby at least six to eight months old, as it does not satisfy baby’s sucking urge like a bottle. A younger baby can take your milk by cup, spoon, or even eyedropper.

Most mothers think first of using a bottle, but choosing a feeding method that does not satisfy your baby’s sucking urge may end the strike sooner. When a baby has no other sucking outlets, such as a bottle or pacifier, he will be more motivated to go back to the breast. If your baby has been taking a pacifier regularly, consider giving it a rest until the strike ends and he’s back to breastfeeding.

What Causes a Nursing Strike?

Why do babies who nursed well suddenly refuse the breast or begin to struggle with latching? Before choosing a strategy for overcoming a strike, see if you can determine its cause from the list below.

Physical Causes

  • Ear infection, cold, or other illness
  • Reflux disease, which makes feedings painful
  • Overabundant milk production with a fast, overwhelming flow
  • Allergy or sensitivity to a food or drug mother consumed
  • Pain when held after an injury, medical procedure, or injection
  • Mouth pain from teething, thrush, or a mouth injury
  • Reaction to a product such as deodorant, lotion, or laundry detergent

 Environmental Causes

  • Stress, upset, or overstimulation
  • Breastfeeding on a strict schedule, timed feedings, or regular interruptions
  • Baby left to cry for long periods
  • Major change in routine, like traveling, a household move, or mother returning to work
  • Yelling during breastfeeding
  • A strong negative reaction when baby bites
  • An unusually long separation

Knowing the cause will make it easier to choose an effective strategy. For example, if an ear infection is the cause, the right medical treatment and time to recover may be the best solution.

Breast refusal is stressful, but it is almost always possible to overcome it and return to breastfeeding. The following basic approaches can reduce your stress and shorten the strike.

See next page for strategies for overcoming a strike…
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