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.
- 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
- 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.
Strategies for Overcoming a Strike
Keep time at the breast happy.Avoid turning the breast into a battleground. If your baby fights your attempts to breastfeed, feed another way and spend lots of happy cuddle time at the breast. When your baby is near the breast, talk, laugh, play, and look into his eyes. Make time there emotionally rewarding, and make any feeding time away from the breast emotionally neutral. Hold your sleeping baby against your breast during naptimes to help shorten the strike.
Spend time touching and in skin-to-skin contact. When not feeding, hold baby with his bare torso against your skin, and stay that way as much as possible. This is soothing to both of you, and the hormones released make baby more open to breastfeeding. If needed, throw a blanket over both of you. Take a bath with your baby, and use a sling or baby carrier to keep him close.
Offer the breast while baby is drowsy or in a light sleep.Many babies accept the breast again for the first time while asleep or in a relaxed, sleepy state. Try breastfeeding while baby naps. Use feeding positions baby likes best and experiment. To make the most of your baby’s natural feeding reflexes, start in a semi-reclined position with baby tummy down on your body. Lean back, and allow baby to take naps on your breast.
Trigger immediate milk flow.Pump before offering your breast to give baby milk he doesn’t have to work for. Or first try hand-expressing a little milk onto baby’s lips. If baby goes to the breast but won’t stay there, ask a helper to drip expressed milk on the breast or in the corner of baby’s mouth with a spoon. Swallowing your milk will trigger suckling, which triggers swallowing. If baby comes off the breast, offer more expressed milk and try again.
Try breast shaping and breastfeeding in motion. Shaping the breast so that it’s easier to latch may help baby take the breast deeper and trigger active suckling. Keep in mind that some babies accept the breast only while being walked or rocked, so if baby is not responding to semi-reclined positions, it may be time to get moving.
Try breastfeeding when baby’s not ravenous. To feed well, baby needs to feel calm and relaxed rather than hungry and stressed. If baby’s agitated, calm him first. Some babies will take the breast more easily if they are not very hungry, so try feeding a little milk first, using whatever feeding method is working for you. Start with one-third to one-half of his usual feeding, just to take the edge off his hunger before offering the breast.
Make the most of times that breastfeeding is going well. When baby takes the breast, breastfeed as long as he will suckle. Offer the breast again soon, rather than waiting until he is very hungry.
If your baby takes a bottle but not the breast, try a bait-and-switch.Start by bottle-feeding in a breastfeeding position and, while baby is actively sucking and swallowing, pull out the bottle nipple and insert yours. Some babies will just keep suckling.
Use breastfeeding tools. With the guidance of a lactation professional, the following devices may help you turn the corner.
- Silicone nipple shield. In some cases, nipple shields can help a baby transition back to the breast, especially if the strike occurred after a period of heavy bottle and pacifier use.
- At-breast supplementer. These devices provides milk at the breast through a thin tube that attaches to a container. If slow milk flow is an issue, it may help. If not, it may not be a good choice.
If these strategies don’t work, it’s time to get skilled breastfeeding help. Find someone in your area by clicking on this link. Your technique may need a simple tweak or you may need some breastfeeding tools or help with how to use them.
Breastfeeding is the biological norm, so nearly all breastfeeding struggles have a solution. It’s just a matter of finding it. Even if settled breastfeeding seems impossible now, with time, patience, and skilled help you can make breastfeeding work again.
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Nancy Mohrbacher is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and a Fellow of the International Lactation Consultant Association. She is also the coauthor of Breastfeeding Made Simple, The Breastfeeding Answer Book, and author of Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple: A Guide for Helping Mothers.