Nursing strikes and breast refusal, in my opinion, are one of the most difficult and heartbreaking challenges a breastfeeding mother could possibly face. I feel this way because at 8 months old my first child went on a 16-day nursing strike which left me feeling very confused, hopeless, emotionally, physically, and psychologically exhausted, and fearful that our beautiful breastfeeding journey had come to a dramatic and difficult end. If you would like to learn more about my personal experience with nursing strikes and breast refusal, you can read more about it on my biography page. I am also more than happy to personally share my story with you and do all that I can to help you.
If you are dealing with a nursing strike or sudden breast refusal, I urge you to read on!
The first question that usually pops in a breastfeeding mother’s mind when her baby suddenly begins refusing to nurse is: “Could this be the end!? Is my baby weaning?”
First, you should know that babies very rarely self-wean before 18-24 months. So, if your baby has suddenly stopped nursing or is acting very fussy at the breast, take comfort in knowing that your little one is probably NOT weaning. It is possible that you are experiencing a “nursing strike.”
Nursing strikes can be caused by a number of different things. Most nursing strikes occur as a result of illness (such as an ear infection), teething or the mother’s reaction to biting. However, breast refusal is also common in newborns who are not experiencing any of these issues. Nursing strikes are characterized by a sudden stop in nursing and is often accompanied by abnormal behavior in the baby (such as crying, screaming or pushing away the breast). People who are unfamiliar with nursing strikes sometimes mistake a strike or general breast refusal for self-weaning. However, we know that young babies very rarely self-wean before 18 months and when they do, it is a very SLOW and GRADUAL process.
If your baby is around 4-5 months old and was previously nursing well:
Remember that your baby is just beginning to notice his/her surroundings and is very interested in the things going on around you. Distracted nursing is VERY common around this age and can sometimes cause moms to panic. You are not alone! Your busy, alert baby simply needs a less distracting environment for nursing, now. This article published in the La Leche League International’s Breastfeeding Today magazine explains this new development and its effects on nursing very well!
If your baby is around 8-10 months old and was previously nursing well:
Your baby is probably becoming very mobile, he/she may begin pulling himself/herself up, crawling, and even cruising along furniture! This new development in your baby’s life is very exciting and he/she wants to get down and explore his or her new world! Your baby may even begin biting around this age. Perhaps you were the victim of “nip-lash” and reacted with a loud, “OUCH!” Sometimes, mom’s reaction to biting can be frightening for baby and cause him/her to be leery of nursing. It is OK! You can get your happy, nursing baby back!
**Tips for getting baby back to the breast**
Try to nurse baby when they are DROWSY, as they are often more cooperative when they are sleepy and less likely to refuse. Nurse in a dimly lit, distraction-free room – put down your phone, turn off the TV, keep the pets away, and turn on the white noise machine. Nurse in motion (while wearing your baby in a carrier and walking or rocking), when possible. Remain CALM and offer to nurse in a very GENTLE manner, never force your baby to the breast. You want to offer your breast in a “no pressure” sort of way. Try nursing in various positions, such as side-lying. Whenever possible, co-bathe with your baby (remove all toys and create a relaxing atmosphere). Increase skin-to-skin time, wear your baby, nap with your baby, lay in the floor and play with your baby – this is the time to reconnect and relax with your baby. Your baby is “home” when he or she is in your arms and close to your chest. Reestablishing this closeness helps to relax you both and will lead to continued nursing.
**What to do when LO refuses**
If your little one is not interested in nursing, take a 15 minute break to distract both you and your baby, and then try again. If your baby still refuses, give expressed milk (preferably through a syringe or cup) and PUMP in place of nursing. Stimulating your breast is vital to continued milk production. If your little one is taking in expressed milk or refusing to nurse, you need to protect your supply through consistent and sufficient breast stimulation.
Try to relax and clear your mind of all negative thoughts before and while nursing. Meditate, pray, sing, do whatever you have to get you to your “happy place.” Your mood will make all the difference in whether or not your baby feels relaxed and comfortable in your arms. If they sense you are stressed or frustrated they will be tense, too, and not want to nurse.
**When to call the doctor**
If you suspect your baby is ill or teething and you have been unsuccessful in bringing him or her to the breast, it’s time to call the doctor. You want to rule out possible infections that may be causing your little one discomfort. Remember, if your baby is sick and is very congested, it can make it very difficult for him/her to breathe while nursing. If teething is your problem, you may need to help relieve your baby’s pain. Breast milk “popsicles,” frozen teething rings, or a chilled moist washcloth applied to your baby’s gums before nursing may do the trick! You should also discuss whether or not pain medications should be administered with your child’s pediatrician.
Nursing strikes can be extremely emotionally, physically, and psychologically exhausting! It is important that mothers who are experiencing a nursing strike have a lot of support while working through a strike. Remember, this is not your fault! Your baby loves you more than anything and wants nothing more than to be close to you! Your baby is also struggling and needs your comfort and encouragement. Together, you CAN get through this! This is NOT the end! Again, some well-intending people, perhaps even your pediatrician, may try to convince you your baby is ready to wean. Do your best not to let negativity discourage you. If you feel in your heart that this sudden change in your baby’s nursing behavior is unnatural, it is important to trust your gut instincts and press for appropriate help. Breastfeeding is natural and necessary for survival, young babies do not self-wean suddenly. If they did, our species would have ceased to exist long ago! This is TEMPORARY. Your baby wants to nurse!
If you need additional support or are experiencing a particularly challenging nursing strike, please reach out to our staff at Lactation Consultants of Central FL, we are here to support you and can help you overcome this obstacle.