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Dealing With a Nursing Strike

Posted by Wendy Wright on

Babies younger than one year rarely wean on their own. But, some babies do suddenly refuse to nurse. So what’s going on? If he won’t nurse, you’re not sure what to do. You’re wondering why he doesn’t want to nurse – something he loved to do until now. And you’re worried because he needs to eat. This can be a difficult and scary time.

First, don’t blame yourself. It’s not something you did or didn’t do. A nursing strike, or sudden refusal to nurse, can happen for a number of reasons. When nursing strikes do happen, it tends to be between ages 3 months and 9 months, and it can last for 2 to 4 days, (though for some babies it might take a week or more to get back to the breast). Not only will you be confused about the whole thing, but your baby will likely be unhappy. It can be a challenging time for both of you!

The reason for the nursing strike will let you know what steps to take to get back on track. Occasionally a baby will refuse to nurse, and no cause can be found. But the most common reasons for a nursing strike include:

  • Baby is sick – Does your baby have a cold, an ear infection, thrush? Any of these can make it uncomfortable to nurse.
  • Baby is teething – sore gums can make nursing painful. Or if baby bit you with those new teeth and you reacted strongly, it’s possible your reaction startled baby enough to make him hesitant to feed again.
  • Baby is using a bottle or pacifier more often – and has started to prefer the more rigid shape and feel compared to your softer breast tissue.
  • Baby is reaching a developmental milestone such as crawling, standing, walking, eating more solids. Even just being more distractible (which is normal as baby grows) can sometimes impact nursing.
  • Mom smells different – Have you changed your deodorant, perfume, soap, laundry detergent? Some babies are more particular than others.
  • The milk tastes different – if you’ve recently had mastitis, if you’re pregnant again, if you’re taking medication or if you have eaten anything with strong flavors, the flavor of your milk might change.
  • The milk flow has changed – is your supply decreasing, or is your baby simply getting frustrated more easily waiting for a let-down?
  • Big changes in family life can cause changes in breastfeeding, too. Have you recently gone back to work, had company, or moved to a new home? Is baby overstimulated or distracted (in positive or negative ways)? Are other major life stressors going on for your family? Have you been arguing with others around baby (or while nursing)?

Once you’re on your way to determining a cause, you can find a solution that will work to get baby breastfeeding again. Be persistent, but make nursing something relaxing. Offer the breast, but if baby won’t nurse simply feed him another way and try again at the next feeding time. You can use a bottle, a cup, a syringe, a spoon. And you can feed expressed breastmilk if you have it. (If he’s not nursing, you should pump to keep up your supply.)

Other ideas for getting baby back to the breast include:

  • Skin-to-skin time
  • Extra cuddling and attention between feedings
  • Babywearing
  • Bathe with baby
  • Put your baby to the breast when he’s drowsy or sleeping
  • Get milk flowing with a pump or with hand expression before latching
  • Use motion (walking, swaying, rocking) while nursing
  • Limit distractions at feeding time
  • Treat illnesses or teething pain with at-home comfort measures before nursing

As you’re trying to get your baby back to the breast, remember that this is only temporary. It may be a slow process, but your patience and persistence at getting baby back to the breast will pay off in the end.

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