If your baby suddenly refuses to nurse or starts screaming and pulling away when you put her to the breast, it can be very distressing for you both. This situation is called a “nursing strike”. Sometimes mothers are told that their baby is simply weaning. This is very unlikely. Weaning usually happens gradually. It is also very rare that a baby will wean on his own during his first year.
Until your baby is back at breast, it’s important to:
- Feed your baby.
- Maintain your milk supply.
There are many reasons why nursing strikes occur. However, it is often impossible to know the cause of a specific nursing strike.
Common causes include:
- earache or stuffy nose
- a scary sound that happened while breastfeeding
- milk flow speed- too many bottles can cause your baby to be frustrated by the flow of milk from the breast
- use of a different lotion or deodorant (you smell different)
- a recent change in routine or nursing pattern (new job, returning to work, increased use of a sitter, delayed feedings)
- busyness/stress around the holidays or having extra visitors
- a major change, such as moving or travelling
- teething pain
- mom’s reaction to biting - teething can sometimes cause babies to bite down and mom to yell. If the baby is badly startled by mom’s yelp, he may resist going back to the breast.
- less milk because of ovulation, a pregnancy, birth control pills, maternal illness
- encouraging your baby to stay at the breast longer than he wants to - babies sometimes learn to bite in order to end the feeding.
Nursing strikes can last from a few days to a couple of weeks.
Getting your baby back to breast
Here are some ideas that other parents have found helpful in bringing a nursing strike to a close:
- Encourage rather than force your baby to take the breast. Hold him (skin-to-skin as much as possible) and let him take the lead when he is ready to try again.
- Wear your baby as much as possible during the day. This could be skin to skin or clothed.
- Take a warm bath together.
- Make the breast available while your baby is sleepy, either when he is just waking up or just dozing off to sleep.
- Nurse in a quiet, dark place.
- Squirt some milk into your baby’s mouth while attempting to latch.
- Sing to or rock your baby while holding him skin-to-skin.
- Offer your baby’s preferred breast, if she has one, until the strike is over.
- Nurse in a different position or location or anywhere new (outside, at someone else’s house, in another room, walking or rocking while latching, etc).
- Lay down topless and play with your baby.
- Change the way you offer your milk or supplement when you are not breastfeeding (see How to Protect Breastfeeding while Supplementing).
Babies have to be fed. Offer your milk in a cup or by spoon. Avoid using a bottle which may make the situation worse. The baby’s sucking pattern is different with a bottle nipple. The milk flow may be faster or slower than at the breast. Your baby may start to prefer the bottle.
Protecting your milk supply
It’s important to maintain your milk supply, so there will be plenty of milk when your baby returns to breast. During the time that your baby is refusing to nurse, you will need to express your milk. You can hand express or use a pump. Do this as frequently as your baby would normally nurse. If your baby has refused several feedings, you can offer your expressed milk in a cup. Avoid bottles and pacifiers during this period in the hope that your baby's sucking urges will encourage him to start nursing again.
If your breasts are hard and sore and you don’t have time to pump, express enough milk so that you are comfortable. You will also want to monitor your breasts for signs of mastitis (see Mastitis - A Matter of Inflammation).
Most nursing strikes resolve within a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Trying any or all of the ideas above can help your baby get back to breastfeeding. Nursing strikes can be very emotionally distressing for everyone involved. It can be helpful to get the practical and emotional support of a La Leche League Leader who can talk over the situation with you and brainstorm some other ideas that may work for you. Consider attending a local La Leche League meeting either in-person or virtually to hear how other mothers have dealt with a nursing strike.
If the nursing strike has gone on for more than a few weeks, it may mean that your nursing journey has come to an end. If you’ve been expressing your milk, you’ll want to slowly decrease the amount of milk expressed and the time between pumpings. After a few days only express milk if you are overly full.
This may be very upsetting if you had hoped to breastfeed for longer. Allow yourself to grieve the loss and try to be kind to yourself. Celebrate the time you and your child spent breastfeeding together and recognize that this is another step in your mothering journey.
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