Nursing Strikes: What To Do When Baby Refuses To Nurse

August is National Breastfeeding Month and here at Ready. Set. Food!, we support each and every parent’s decision on how to feed and nourish their families. That’s why we’re proud to join National Breastfeeding Month in helping build a landscape of breastfeeding support.

Yesterday, everything was going smoothly with breastfeeding – but today, your little one is suddenly refusing to nurse. What’s going on? Today, we’ll go over the possible reasons for “nursing strikes” – and give you tips for dealing with them.

Yesterday, everything was going smoothly with breastfeeding – but today, your little one is outright refusing to nurse and is fussing at the breast. This “nursing strike” came on suddenly, with no warning. What’s going on?

First off, sudden nursing strikes usually aren’t a sign that your little one is weaning themself. Rather, these sudden strikes tend to last for only a day to a few days, and have different reasons behind them. If they were ready to wean on their own, baby would gradually and noticeably nurse less and less at the breast. (And a complete stoppage of nursing after that slowdown would be more expected.)

So, why is your little one suddenly going on a nursing strike? Today, we’ll go over the possible reasons – and give you tips for dealing with a sudden refusal to nurse.

Why is my baby refusing to nurse?

If baby goes on a nursing strike, figuring out the reason that they’re refusing to nurse can help get baby to resume breastfeeding.

This isn't as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, multiple factors could be leading to the nursing strike at once.

Still, it's important to investigate, in case an illness, medical condition, or direct breastfeeding issue (like overactive letdown or low supply) is the cause.

Here are several situations that could lead to nursing strikes, and specific ways to help solve them.

You have an overactive letdown.

An overactive letdown may mean that baby is getting too much milk from your breast at once, and that your milk is spraying too hard for them to handle. This may make baby uncomfortable, because they can’t control how much milk they’re drinking at once.

How to help solve this: Try these strategies for dealing with an overactive letdown.

Your letdown is not fast enough for baby.

On the flip side, an impatient baby may turn away from the breast if they want milk immediately, but your letdown doesn’t start fast enough for them to nurse right away.

How to help solve this: Try pumping for a bit right before you nurse baby. Pumping will stimulate your let-down, so it will be active when baby starts to nurse.

Your milk tastes different because of a new food you ate.

The taste of your breastmilk changes based on the foods you eat. If you eat something spicy or strong-tasting, baby might not like the new taste of your breastmilk.

How to help solve this: Wait it out; baby will adjust to the taste changes. Or, try the strategies for any nursing strike below. You might also remove the possible culprit food from your diet if you want – you don’t have to, though.

Your hormones have changed.

If your period has resumed – or you’re pregnant again – this could also change how your breastmilk tastes. Hormonal changes in your body can change the taste of your breastmilk enough that baby doesn’t like it.

How to help solve this: You'll have to wait this one out – or, try the strategies for dealing with any nursing strike below. Baby will get accustomed to the taste changes after a bit.

You are taking a new medication.

Medications can also change the taste of your breastmilk.

How to help solve this: You’ll have to wait this one out as well – or, try the strategies for dealing with any nursing strike below.

You smell different.

Are you wearing a new perfume or deodorant? Did you use a new soap or lotion? This may make you smell noticeably different – and lead baby to go on “strike” because they don’t like the smell.

How to help solve this: Wait it out, or try the strategies for dealing with any nursing strike below. You might also swap products if you have a different option already on hand, and see what happens.

Baby is under stress (and/or you are under stress).

If you’ve changed baby’s nursing patterns or other parts of their routine, baby is overstimulated, or baby was separated from you for a long time (for reasons such as your return to work), they may be stressed.

They may also be stressed if they bit you and startled you recently, and you scared them by reacting in sudden distress. This may lead to fussiness and nursing strikes. If you are under stress, baby might also sense that and be reluctant to breastfeed.

How to help solve this: Try holding baby skin-to-skin, playing soothing music, singing to baby, or talking to baby in a gentle way to help soothe them. If you’re the one who is stressed, try relaxation techniques like a bath, hot tea, or favorite music before you nurse.

Baby likes the bottle better.

Have you started feeding baby pumped breastmilk using a bottle? Sometimes, baby will start to prefer the bottle over the breast, and refuse to nurse in hopes that they’ll get the bottle instead. This is called “nipple confusion.”

How to help solve this: Make sure that baby gets enough time at the breast relative to the bottle – replace bottle feeds with nursing sessions where you can. Also, make sure that the flow and feel of the bottle mimic the flow of milk from your breast – baby should have to work to get milk from the bottle. They might prefer your existing bottle because it’s “easier” to get the milk out compared to your breast. Try these other tips to combat nipple confusion as well.

Baby is distracted.

Baby might not be focused enough to feed because too much is going on around them. Overstimulation – or a new feeding environment – could lead baby to get distracted, even if it doesn’t make them stressed.

How to help solve this: Feed baby in a quiet, low-light room with no distractions.

Your milk supply is low.

Baby might go on strike because you’re not producing enough milk, and they’re eager to get milk immediately.

How to help solve this: Try these tips to increase your milk supply. It may take a bit, so be patient.

Baby is injured or sore.

A recent injury, or soreness from a vaccine or other procedure, may make nursing in certain positions uncomfortable for baby.

How to help solve this: If baby just seems sore or uncomfortable, try different breastfeeding positions. But if you notice that baby is injured, contact your doctor.

Baby has a cold or another respiratory illness.

If your little one’s nose is stuffed up, that might make it hard for them to breathe while they’re breastfeeding.

How to help solve this: Try putting baby-safe saline drops into your little one’s nose. Hopefully, their nose will clear up long enough for them to breastfeed without having breathing troubles.

Baby is teething.

When baby sucks, this may make their teething pain worse. You might notice that baby starts to nurse, then suddenly stops and strikes.

How to help solve this: Try some of these tips to relieve baby’s teething discomfort.

Baby has an ear infection.

Ear infection pain can also get worse when baby sucks – or, when baby lies on one side.

How to help solve this: Talk to a doctor. They will treat the ear infection.

Baby has a thrush infection (fungal infection in the mouth).

If you have nipple thrush, you can pass that to baby and lead to a fungal infection in baby’s mouth. If you have, or baby has, recently taken antibiotics, you’re both at higher risk for thrush. You can tell if baby has thrush if you notice white patches on the tongue, leading to raw, bloody areas if you try to wipe them off. You can imagine why this would make breastfeeding painful and lead to a strike!

How to help solve this: Call your doctor, as you and baby will need prescription antifungal medication to treat the thrush. You’ll also need to thoroughly sanitize everything that your baby’s mouth comes in contact with.

Baby has a GI issue.

If baby's stomach or digestive tract is uncomfortable due to an illness or condition, they might fuss at the breast because eating is making them uncomfortable. Signs of a problem may include diarrhea or frequent, forceful vomiting with distress.

How to help solve this: See a doctor. They'll need to figure out if baby has a short-term illness, or a longer-term condition like acid reflux, so baby can receive the proper care.

Baby has a food allergy.

Proteins from foods you eat can get passed to baby through your breastmilk. If baby is allergic to a food you ate, they will develop an allergic reaction when they drink breastmilk that contains these “problem food” proteins.

How to help solve this: If baby shows allergic reaction symptoms, stop eating the food that you think caused your baby to react. Then, call a doctor. Once you’ve identified baby’s “problem food(s),” you will need to remove the food(s) from your diet for as long as you plan to breastfeed.

Ways to help solve any nursing strike

In addition to the specific strategies we’ve detailed above, these ways can help you solve most nursing strikes. These are especially helpful if you can’t pinpoint the nursing strike’s cause, or you think the cause is something that you’ll have to wait out (like changes to your smell or your breastmilk’s taste). They may also work well in situations where baby is stressed or distracted.

  • Give baby some skin-to-skin time. This will help you bond with baby and promote the release of stress-reducing hormones.
  • Try a different breastfeeding position.
  • Create a soothing nursing environment, free from distractions.
  • Spend lots of time connecting with baby outside of nursing times.
  • Try a feed when baby is sleepy, or when you’re walking around with baby.
  • Try feeding milk via a syringe, or via a cup if they’re 6 months old or older.
  • Try the bottle if you need to – just don’t fall back on the bottle too much, as you don’t want to cause nipple confusion. Make sure the bottle feed mimics breastfeeding as much as possible.
  • If these strategies don’t work, simply wait a bit, then try again. Baby might surprise you and “break the strike.”

During a nursing strike, it’s vital to pump regularly. If baby refuses to feed, pump so you’re still expressing your milk on a consistent schedule. This will help you maintain your milk supply as you “ride out the strike.”

For more info on how to deal with a nursing strike, check out these tips from lactation consultant Mary Cahill:

What if a nursing strike lasts longer than a few days?

If what seems like a sudden nursing strike lasts longer than 2-4 days, or baby has fewer wet diapers than usual, call your doctor, your lactation consultant, or both. This breastfeeding refusal goes beyond a typical nursing strike.

Baby may be refusing the breast because they’re so used to the bottle, or their illness or infection might be making nursing overly painful.

Or, there may be a more serious cause of baby’s breastfeeding refusal, such as:

  • An allergy to a food you ate
  • Acid reflux disease (also called GERD)
  • Aspiration (which makes milk go into baby’s lungs instead of their stomach)
  • A tongue tie or lip tie, which only just started causing breastfeeding difficulties (sometimes, the effects of a tongue tie aren’t apparent for a few months)
  • Another illness, injury, or condition

These causes will often lead baby to refuse the breast for longer periods, and they all require medical attention.

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