BreastfeedingCommon ProblemsTeething

When Baby Stops Breastfeeding, it’s a Nursing Strike!

“Hey, so all of the sudden my three month won’t eat. It seems like a nursing strike. He won’t take my breast and if he does, it’s a very short feed. He screams if I even put him in the position. I have milk and it’s leaking out– even shooting out now–because I’m so full. I tried a bottle with a slow nipple — he took some and then started crying. 

He has NEVER been like this before. He loves breastfeeding and his weight is great – 20 pounds at 3 months. He is an awesome eater and I’m worried. Should I call the pediatrician? He’s arching his back, do you think he has reflux? I’m worried because he hasn’t had many wet diapers. He needs to eat and I feel like I am going to burst!”

When your baby is refusing to nurse, it is a nursing strike. 

A nursing strike is when a baby who normally enjoys breastfeeding suddenly refuses to breastfeed. You might think a baby is weaning and done with breastfeeding, but if they are younger than 12 months, that is unlikely. In addition, most babies don’t suddenly wean cold turkey, they gradually taper off breastfeeding over a period of weeks or months. 

During a nursing strike, sometimes it is obvious why they stopped. For example, they bit you. You yelled in pain. They cried and next time you offered, baby said, “Nope. Not doing that again. No more nursing.”

Don’t fight it and don’t force breastfeeding, because that can make it worse.

More often, it takes detective work to figure out why. It’s important to stay calm and think back to what’s been going on. 

If baby’s weight is great, you have a cushion of time. They are not going to starve if they don’t nurse for a day. You, on the other hand will be very uncomfortable, so express or pump milk to prevent engorgement and plugged ducts. You may need to pump several times to stay comfortable.

If you are worried about your baby’s weight, feed them by any means possible, and continue trying to understand why they aren’t feeding.

You will make faster progress if you accept that they have a very good reason, from their perspective, to NOT breastfeed. Think about what that might be, take a longer term view, stay connected with your baby, stay optimistic and keep trying.

“So, if my baby has a very good reason, what might that be, from their view?”

Babies can strike for any reason you could think of. They are human beings with their own sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and feelings of fear, safety, and comfort. 

What often happens is that something startled, or bothered, them while they were nursing and they got scared. They’re afraid it will happen again. Therefore, if they don’t nurse, it won’t happen and they won’t be scared.

Try to remember what might have happened just before they started refusing. 

Was there a loud noise, like a dog barking, or pans crashing off a counter? Did you yell while breastfeeding? No judgment, it happens!

When a baby is uncomfortable with teething, they can strike. Maybe your baby bit your nipple and it hurt you. You probably and justifiable reacted, but in the process, scared your baby.

Are they sick or starting to get sick?

If they have an ear infection, upset tummy, reflux or a sore throat, nursing may be painful. Thrush is fairly common and can hurt while nursing. If it’s thrush, you may have heard a clicking nose previously or found your baby is pulling on and off while nursing. Coxsackie and Hand, Foot and Mouth viruses can make their mouth sore and breastfeeding can hurt, though breast milk will also soothe and heal it.

Maybe they have a stuffy nose? If their nose is stuffy, they can’t nurse and breathe at the same time. Personally? I would choose breathing over eating, if I had to choose. : )

Maybe you are sick or smelly?

If you have mastitis or a plugged duct, your milk can taste funny. It’s still safe for them to drink, but it’s not the same yumminess they are used to.

If you eat a lot of one flavorful food, like garlic, oregano or asparagus, your milk is might taste strongly of that flavor. Food flavors passing into your milk is one way that your baby learns about a variety of foods, so it’s not a bad thing. It might be that your baby doesn’t like it in this quantity.

Sometimes you use new smelly product that they don’t like, like a new detergent, dryer sheets, soap, deodorant, a new medication, or even rarely, your body odor. Baby is nursing and they notice the new smell, “Pee-yoo! What is that? Get me outta here!”

Once in a while, this is a first sign of being pregnant. Because of pregnancy hormones, your milk dries up and your baby lets you know they are hungry either by nursing a lot or by refusing to nurse.

Is is too long since the last feed, an overactive letdown, or an overly reactive gag reflex?

Sometimes, you have been so busy that they just gave up while waiting for you, and by extension, breastfeeding. This is also called ‘holiday weaning’ and is a sign that they need you to slow down, cuddle and reconnect with them.

Sometimes babies gag on a forceful letdown of milk. Some babies live with this all the time, but when it’s out of the ordinary, it can startle your baby and result in a nursing strike.

Does your baby have an overly reactive gag reflex? Gagging is a safety reflex but it can cause a nursing strike when it’s too close to the front of a baby’s mouth and triggered. New babies with a overly reactive gag reflex will compensate with a shallow latch. Slowly desensitizing it over time can make all nursing more comfortable.

If you can figure out what it is, talk to your baby about it. 

Apologize if you did something that scared them. Explain what happened and try to coax them back onto the breast by reassuring them that it won’t happen again. Reassure them that you are their mommy, you love them and will protect them. Keep talking to them. Even though they may only be a few weeks old, they can understand you and sometimes, this is all you need to do.

There is no one magic solution. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Try breastfeeding again when they’re sleeping or drowsy.
  • Lay down with them for naps and see if that helps.
  • Try taking a bath together to see if that relaxes both of you into breastfeeding. 
  • You may find settling into a favorite position helps.
  • Or you may find just the opposite and it’s an unfamiliar positions that breaks the pattern.

If your baby still will not nurse, keep them skin to skin as much as you can. Keep snuggling skin-to-skin and keep offering without any pressure. Your attitude should be one of coaxing or encouraging them back to breastfeeding by making it their choice, not your will. It takes time and patience to rebuild your trust between you two.

If it continues more than 12 hours, offer breastmilk by bottle or cup.

If they refuse milk for more than a day, it’s a good idea to see the doctor to rule out an injury or illness. Continue feeding expressed milk and when appropriate, solid food while you are waiting.

Some strikes last a few days or a week, though most last only 24 hours or less. 

If your little one is still refusing, don’t lose hope. You are an adult and you have a perspective of time. You can remember skills you had to work on for weeks and months, and this is another one. You will teach your child many things over the years. You will teach them how to walk, how to read, how to ride a bike and how to drive. Breastfeeding is more important than all of these, so keep working on it.

Keep it low key and optimistic. Monitor their response and work to rebuild their trust. All but the most determined baby can be coaxed back because breastfeeding is so good.

Mother of three, including twins; Lactation Consultant; Partner of Michael;

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