The last thing you expect after several months of successful nursing is for your baby to suddenly refuse to feed. If you can't seem to convince him to take any breast milk, you're probably dealing with a nursing strike. Dr. Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC and author of The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers says nursing strikes—although not common—tend to occur when your baby is around three and eight months old.
You're probably wondering what you've done to make your baby so determined not to feed, but over-analyzing your behavior isn't the answer. It might be tough to figure out exactly what the reason is for your infant's sudden aversion to the breast; here are some possible causes:
- Milk supply. Dr. Newman says, "I now believe that many if not most 'nursing strikes' are actually due to a decrease in milk supply...Interestingly, these are usually mothers who had a lot, even an abundant milk supply, but the milk supply decreased and thus the flow of milk to the baby decreased. The baby fusses at the breast, pulls the breast and at the extreme, the baby refuses the breast much of the day."
- Thrush. Sometimes a nursing strike is explained as thrush, an infection in the mouth or throat. However, Dr. Newman says thrush rarely bothers babies.
- Teething. When we think teething, we usually think about babies wanting to put things in their mouths, but babies are just as likely to reject objects due to pain. It's possible that breastfeeding is making his sore little gums more painful, or simply that he's already uncomfortable enough that the thought of something else in his mouth isn't appealing.
- He's caught a cold. Having a stuffy nose might make it difficult for him to breathe, which can put him off feeding. His cold might even have turned into an ear infection, which could hurt more when he sucks, meaning nursing is out of the question.
- Taste and smell. Michelle Call, La Leche League leader, says that a "change in lotion or deodorant has been known to be the culprit." Maybe you're taking a new medication or you showered with a new body wash. Either way, your baby's sudden strike might be protesting the unfamiliar scent and taste.
- Stress. Perhaps your family has moved, or your baby's schedule has changed in a big way. While some babies seek out nursing for comfort, your infant might try to take control of the only thing he can: whether—and how much—he eats.
Whatever the reason, it seems like the more you try to feed, the more your baby refuses. And that's not just you being paranoid—Dr. Newman recognizes this problem too, and tells moms not to try to force the baby to take the breast. So what can you do to encourage your angry, screaming infant to give nursing another chance?
- Try when he's sleepy. Call says a baby who's falling off to sleep, has just woken up, or even is in the middle of sleep will often nurse, even when he refuses to nurse when he's awake. If he begins to feed, compress your breast gently with your hand to keep the flow of milk going.
- Don't start bottles. Dr. Newman encourages parents to avoid the temptation to bottle-feed. Most babies on a nursing strike aren't truly going without food. Your infant may feed enough at the start of each refused nursing session to keep his hunger at bay, or he might eat overnight while he's drowsy. If all else fails, give him expressed breast milk from a dropper, cup or spoon. Track his diapers to make sure he has at least six wet diapers in a 24-hour period, and if you're really concerned, contact your pediatrician.
- Skin-to-skin contact. Try being undressed from the waist up with your baby in just a diaper. Snuggle with him in bed, or take a nap together. The increased contact might tempt your baby to return to nursing.
- Use a pacifier. If your baby already has a pacifier, Dr. Newman suggests letting him suck on it until he's calm, then transferring him to the breast, to make him more receptive to latching on. But use the pacifier sparingly—Call cautions that too much pacifier or bottle use might actually be the cause of the strike in the first place.
- Reach out for help. Call suggests contacting your local La Leche League leader for tips and added support, either by visiting lactation-friendly message boards online or reaching out for one-on-one support.
Above all, stay calm. Getting stressed won't help the situation, and will only make both of you more anxious. Remember that this won't cause long-term problems for your baby—in fact, Newman found that most babies on strike are still eating enough to gain weight.
Call says "it can help a mom to know that with a bit of patience and care, it usually doesn't last more than a few days, and it almost always ends happily." Just because your baby's on strike, it doesn't mean your breastfeeding days are done—so take a deep breath, push through it and soon your baby's food intake will increase without a daily nursing battle.