If your baby is refusing to breastfeed, I see you. It can feel beyond stressful during these times and often everyone ends up in tears. I hope this blog helps you understand the most common causes and provides some ideas to help end the strike.
What is a Nursing Strike?
A nursing strike is when your baby, who was previously breastfeeding well, begins to refuse to nurse for a period of time. Your baby may scream, cry or even push away when being put to the breast.
Sometimes, nursing strikes are misinterpreted as self-weaning. Typically, babies who are ready to wean do so over a gradual period of weeks, and babies rarely wean on their own before 18-24 months. Even though most nursing strikes are temporary and last only a feed or two up to a couple of days, it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the whole family. In these moments of protest your baby is not rejecting you — they are trying to tell us something they just don’t have the language for it yet.
Milk Supply Issues
Both oversupply and undersupply may cause nursing strikes.
If you have a surplus of breastmilk, you may end up with a baby who refuses to nurse. This can happen because the nursing experience becomes stressful for the child. Imagine if every time you were thirsty, you had a huge amount of liquid coming at you quickly and you were expected to drink with no breaks — it would leave you feeling tired, stressed, and maybe even gassy. If every time your baby goes to the breast they sputter and choke, they may start to build an aversion to the breast and begin to refuse.
If this sounds like you, please reach out. Oversupply can be managed and we have helped thousands of mothers settle their supply so their baby can drink comfortably at the breast. It is important to have the support of a healthcare professional or feeding expert when reducing your supply. Some women produce an abundance of milk naturally but others produce more milk to compensate for their baby’s inability to effectively transfer milk, masking the actual cause. Oversupply can be the result of a baby having an oral restriction. Therefore, they need to be assessed before reducing your supply otherwise it may decrease too much.
Nursing strikes can also occur with mothers who have an undersupply. Milk flow needs to be consistent for milk transfer to happen with ease for the baby. If your milk supply is low, the flow will be slower, and your baby may start to pull, bob, or even refuse the breast out of frustration. This is when a nursing strike may occur.
Increasing your milk supply will help increase the flow of your milk, and ensure your baby comes back to nurse at the breast. This can be done by building a pumping plan and incorporating power pumping into your weekly routine.
Similar to working on oversupply, please work alongside a healthcare professional or feeding expert when building your supply. They will perform a full assessment to figure out why your supply is low in the first place, and build a sustainable plan to help you work to resolve it — don’t worry, you won’t likely have to pump throughout your entire breastfeeding journey unless you’d like to build a freezer stash!
Mixing up Feeding Cues
As a new parent, you are learning your baby’s language, which takes time and is always changing. Feeding and sleepy cues look so similar and it’s perfectly normal to mix them up — especially during the first four to five months! Your baby may cry and refuse the breast because they are trying to tell you that they are tired / gassy / overwhelmed. How can you decipher?
If you watch your baby for signs of effective feeding, you will learn what it looks like when they are hungry and when they are finished eating. A baby who is effectively feeding is going to take big sucks and swallows in a rhythmic pattern. When they slow down or change to a flutter (comfort) suck, perform breast compressions a few times. If sucking continues to slow, take them off and try to burp, then offer the other breast. Check out more on our suggested dinner and dessert breastfeeding method here.
Consider getting into the routine of feeding your baby a few minutes after they wake. You will likely see an effective feeding pattern. Watch your baby during their wake time while you are playing — closer to their next sleep time they will likely start showing tired signs (yawning, rubbing their eyes, pulling their ear, red eyes, decreased interest in play, needing more and more help to stay happy, etc.). Offer a feed as a quick top-up before bed and watch them closely — if they aren’t interested, end the feed and instead work on putting your baby to sleep.
How To Move Past The Nursing Strike
First of all, I want to acknowledge how stressful this is for you! Having a baby who refuses to breastfeed can be very anxiety-provoking. To move forward, we need to focus on three things:
- Feeding your baby. If your baby won’t breastfeed, first assess if it is time for a feed? Have they eaten recently? Are they just tired? If they are due for a feed and still refusing, try calming your baby by putting them skin-to-skin. A crying baby will not latch, and it is important not to force the breast on them as you can inadvertently cause an aversion. Focus on calming your baby first, and once they are calm offer the breast again. If they still won’t nurse, you can express breastmilk and offer it via cup, syringe, spoon, or bottle. If you need help figuring out how much milk to offer your baby, please reach out and we can help you.
- Protect your milk supply. While we work on getting your baby back to the breast, we need to protect your milk supply by ensuring we maintain demand. You will need a well-fitting high-quality double pump — pump each time your baby is due for a feed (at least every 3 hours around the clock). Hands-on pumping (massaging your breasts while pumping) will help yield more milk per pumping session.
- Get to the root cause of the strike. Remember, your baby is trying to tell you something — the sooner we figure that out, the sooner we can end their nursing strike. This is key to moving forward. We can help you decode this during an in-home or virtual session here.
If you are currently experiencing a nursing strike, I feel for you! I know nursing your baby is a huge job, never mind when they start refusing the breast. You deserve qualified and caring support. If you need help, you can find your nearest nurse here.
As always, I am sending you so much love and support. You are exactly what your baby needs, even on days it doesn’t feel like it.
Carrie Bruno, RN, IBCLC, MSCP