Why Baby Refuses To Breastfeed (Nursing Strike)

Your breastfed baby has been nursing contently for months but suddenly refuses to breastfeed. This is also known as a nursing strike. There are a multitude of reasons why this can occur. I will list the main causes of breast refusal, also known as a nursing strike and what you can do to get your baby feeding again. 

Why does your baby refuse to breastfeed or go on a nursing strike? There are many factors that can trigger a nursing strike. Among the most common triggers are the following:

  • Overactive letdown (OALD)
  • Different taste or scents
  • Stressful situations
  • Discomfort or illness
  • Changes in the usual breastfeeding routine 
  • Distraction or frightening reaction
  • Reduced milk supply

Finding the source of the problem and making the right changes will usually end a nursing strike. Be careful not to confuse breast refusal with your baby wanting to wean from the breast. It’s very unlikely your baby will want to wean if they are aged under one year. Weaning is usually a gradual process whereas a nursing strike will almost happen suddenly. A nursing strike could also happen during the day only or just for a few hours.

Whatever the reason behind a nursing strike, it can be upsetting and frustrating for you and your baby. I will discuss each factor in more detail along with some other concerns related to breast refusal. I will also share some experts’ tips on how to encourage your baby to breastfeed again.

Why has my baby stopped breastfeeding or gone on a nursing strike?

Overactive Letdown (OALD)

This is one of the most common causes of breast refusal or a nursing strike. You will notice that your milk ejection is too strong making it difficult for your baby to feed. Your baby will appear uncomfortable when nursing such as spluttering, twisting her body and arching her back. Eventually, she may refuse altogether.  If your baby can’t control the milk that is coming in, her instinctive response is to close her mouth and refuse feeding. 

A different taste to breastmilk or strong scents

The taste of your breast milk can be altered by certain foods or medications. It can also taste different due to hormonal shifts you experience when you get pregnant again or if you are about to begin your menstruation.

If your perfume, soap, or deodorant has a strong scent, this can be off-putting to your baby. Babies prefer the natural scent of their mother so use as little products as possible when nursing your baby.

Stress

Babies intuitively know when their mother is feeling stressed and this can affect their feeding regime. A mother will feel less at ease when going through stressful events such as returning to work, getting a new job, or dealing with family issues. Your baby has excellent intuition and can easily sense when his mom is emotionally distressed. Sensing your distress can temporarily put a baby of their feeds and cause a nursing strike.

Discomfort or illness

If your baby is feeling any discomfort, for example, sore gums, thrush, or an ear infection, it will be a lot more difficult for her to feed while breastfeeding. Certain nursing positions may also feel uncomfortable after your baby has had an immunization.

Similarly, if your baby is experiencing a cold or an allergy, it will become more difficult for her to breastfeed. These reasons can make it distressing for your baby to nurse and less likely to want to breastfeed.

Change to the usual breastfeeding routine

Babies love and need a regular routine. A sudden shift in their routine may prompt a nursing strike. This change might be due to a new job or leaving your baby with another caregiver for a longer period of time.

Distraction or frightening situation

Babies can become easily frightened and distracted. You might have frightened him with an intense reaction after he may have bitten a little too hard at your nipple. An over-stimulating environment, feeding delays, or being separated from you for an extended time can affect the way your baby accepts the breast.

Reduced milk supply

A reduction in your milk supply can frustrate your baby resulting in her refusing the breast. Milk supply may have decreased when you became pregnant, or if you are supplementing with formula. Ovulation can also be a reason for a temporary decrease in breast milk production.

How long can a nursing strike last?

Depending on the cause, a nursing strike can last anywhere from a few hours to five days but may even last up to ten days. If it’s a medical cause, a nursing strike should resolve once the symptoms of the condition have been treated. Sometimes it can take a little longer if a nursing strike has been due to your baby sensing stress in her mother or surroundings. If your baby is annoyed by your perfume or deodorant, he may nurse as soon as you remove the scent.

Why is baby refusing one breast suddenly?

If your breastfeeding baby suddenly refuses to feed on one side, there is an underlying reason that makes it uncomfortable for her to nurse from that breast. It may be one of the following:

Reduced milk supply from that breast

This can happen if you prefer feeding her on the other breast, making an asymmetrical supply of breast milk.

Ear infection

If one ear is infected, your baby will refuse to feed on that side due to pain or discomfort. She will choose a position that will make it more comfortable for her to nurse.

Injury or sore injection site

Sometimes, babies are uncomfortable feeding on one breast if the position is hurting an area of her body. For example, if his right leg has a rash or has recently been injected, she may refuse to feed on that side. Changing your nursing position can alleviate this problem.

Breast infection

Your baby will be less likely to nurse from the side where an infection is present. This is because an infection can alter the taste of breast milk. An infection such as mastitis will result in your breast milk tasting saltier. 

Faster or slower letdown

Some babies prefer a faster milk flow while some babies prefer a slower letdown. If your baby is not comfortable with the milk flow on one breast, she is more likely to refuse.

Why will my baby only feed on one breast?

Breast preference is when your baby will only feed on one breast. This can happen if she is getting more milk or is simply comfortable nursing from a particular side. As mentioned above, there are various reasons why babies prefer one side and refuse the other. 

Here are some explanations as to why some babies tend to nurse more often on one side:

Overabundant supply

Some mothers are blessed with an overabundant milk supply. Because of this, their babies are satisfied after feeding on one breast. 

Baby is colicky or gassy

Sometimes, nursing from both breasts can lead to the symptoms of colic. This is particularly evident when you have an overabundant milk supply where your baby may be receiving a higher proportion of foremilk. Symptoms of colic include fussiness, excessive gas, and gaining weight at a faster rate. Feeding only from one breast can help minimize the occurrence of these symptoms.

Breast pain or sore nipples

Sore nipples, breast infection, nipple blisters, or skin diseases like eczema and dermatitis, can all make nursing more difficult on the affected breast. In this case, nursing on the other side is more comfortable for the mother.

Birth Injuries

An injury caused by a traumatic birth may be one reason why your baby continuously resists feeding on one side. Sometimes, an unnoticeable injury at birth such as torticollis can make it uncomfortable for your baby to feed on one side. According to Wombach and Riordan (2016), this could be due to pain on one side of the body such as from a broken clavicle, an injury on one side of his head, torticollis, or a painful shoulder. 

In most cases, nursing only from one breast doesn’t cause any problems. If there is no milk supply concerns your baby will be receiving what she needs from one breast only. Your body will produce enough milk on the preferred breast without any negative effects. However, if this interrupts your normal breastfeeding routine or if it is an indication that there is an underlying medical problem that needs to be addressed, it’s essential that you consult your doctor or a lactation specialist on this matter.

How can I encourage my baby to breastfeed and resolve the nursing strike?

There are some techniques you can use if your baby suddenly refuses to breastfeed. Here are some ways to help your striking baby get back to nursing again:

Identify the triggers

Observe your baby. Take note of when he is more likely to refuse the breast. Does it usually happen during your evening feeds or after you had a meal? Try to check if your baby has any blisters on his mouth, any signs of teething, or if he is currently ill.

Remove or avoid the common triggers

Once you have found the reason for the nursing strike, you can either remove or avoid it before you try to nurse your baby again. If it’s because of your new perfume, deodorant or soap, try switching to your old brand or better still avoid using any to see if your baby will nurse again. If the nursing strike seems to occur if you are going through a stressful situation or an illness, try some relaxation techniques before you begin breastfeeding.

Feed your baby

There is no better way to encourage your baby than offering her the breast and feeding on demand. If your baby continues to resist latching onto the breast, try expressing your milk. You can use a bottle, feeding cup, eyedropper or spoon to feed your baby.

Maintain your milk supply

If your baby is on a nursing strike, pump and store your expressed breast milk at regular intervals. Pump during your baby’s usual feeding time to maintain your supply. In the early months, this will be approximately 8 – 12 times in a 24 hour period. (source) This article guides you on how to combine breastfeeding and pumping.

Use supportive positioning

Certain positions can help your baby latch and nurse easier. The cross-cradle hold and modified football hold can feel soothing to some babies and will encourage them to nurse.

Give your baby a break

If you’ve been trying to latch for more than 10 minutes, or if your baby is becoming frustrated, stop for a while and rest. Continuously trying to latch your baby on to feed during this time can make the situated become more stressed. Encouraging a tired and frustrated baby to latch will make her feel even more frustrated. It can frustrate mom too! So it’s best to just cuddle your baby for a while or hand him over to your partner to rest and calm down.

Breast compressions

If your baby seems to be frustrated due to poor milk supply or slow milk flow, breast compressions while nursing can help. Shaping the breast can also help babies who cannot suck or latch effectively. 

Wear clothes that make the breast accessible

Nursing clothes are worth investing in making it a lot easier when it’s feeding time. Sometimes, babies get frustrated if it takes a long time before they can latch onto the breast. 

Plenty of skin-to-skin contact

Skin-to-skin contact stimulates the release of hormones that keep both of you calm and more ready to initiate breastfeeding. Skin to skin is a great way to stimulate your baby’s instinctive reflexes to root for the breast.

Offer the breast frequently but do not force her to feed

Typically, you should try offering a feed every time you see the cues that she wants to nurse. The early hunger cues include licking her lips, sucking on anything nearby getting restless. A great time to also offer a feed includes during her favorite nursing time, while she is sleepy, or while walking around.

However, do this in a casual manner. Show her that you don’t mind if she refuses again. Do not pressure your baby as it will cause additional stress that can further prolong the nursing strike.

“Wear” your baby

Another technique to stimulate breastfeeding is to carry your baby in a sling or carrier. Keep your baby as close as possible even if you are otherwise busy. Observe for signs that she is ready to nurse, like smacking her lips or rooting towards your breasts.

Sleep near your baby

You can place her crib in the same room as yours or you can safely co-sleep together using a bassinet or a crib that can be attached next to your bed. This way, you’ll be more vigilant and responsive to her hunger cues. You can also avoid frustration as you are beside your baby whenever she needs to feed.

Comfort sucking

Suckling at the breast is not only a source of nutrition but also a source of comfort, especially when your baby is stressed or not feeling well. According to experts, comfort nursing often comes before nutritive nursing. You can try offering your breast even if your baby is not yet hungry as a source of comfort. 

Seek professional help

If your baby actively refuses to nurse even after you tried several ways to encourage her, bring her to your pediatrician for a check-up. They will further investigate the source of the nursing strike and ensure your baby is in full health.  An illness, medical condition or an injury can cause refusal of the breast. 

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