Mikayla was just two months old when, in the middle of the night, she suddenly refused to breastfeed. She had been latching beautifully and everything seemed to be going smoothly prior to this. It was a frustrating and frightening experience. Every time she was put to the breast, she arched her tiny back and twisted her head away, her cries becoming more hysterical. She had never been fed from a bottle before, and as we are all told, breast is best. In desperation, I made up a bottle with a sample of formula I had in the cupboard. The moment that synthetic teat reached her lips and the formula squeezed out she latched onto that bottle like she was starving and sucked the milk into her mouth. I simultaneously felt relief and despair. Particularly when at her next feed, the same thing happened. I felt my daughter had rejected me.
I sought medical advice, and was told that what I was experiencing was quite common. My baby was undergoing a nursing strike. There are multiple reasons why this occurs, and in most cases, once the problem has been identified, with patience, you and your baby can work through this.
Nursing strike vs weaning
Wendy Wisner, a US lactation consultant and writer, shares that any baby or toddler who suddenly refuses the breast is having a nursing strike. “It doesn’t really matter how old your baby is.” Wendy explains that any child under the age of two doesn’t just stop nursing without a cause. “Natural weaning – even if it is pushed along a bit by mom – happens very gradually, the child dropping nursing sessions one by one, over many weeks or months. So, when in doubt, assume your baby or toddler is having a nursing strike.”
Experts from La Leche League International agree that nursing strikes can be frightening and upsetting to both you and your baby, but they are almost always temporary.
As Wendy adds: “Babies actually want to nurse, but something is upsetting them when they strike, and once this is resolved or forgotten, nursing will resume. In order to get through the strike, you need some faith, good support, and lots of patience. It can sometimes take a few days (or even weeks, in some cases) to resolve completely.
Common reasons for nursing strikes
According to La Leche League International, nursing strikes are almost always a temporary reaction to an external factor and sometimes the true cause is not determined. However, here are some common triggers:
- You have changed your deodorant, soap, perfume, lotion, shampoo, or have coloured your hair, and smell different to your baby.
- You have been under stress
- Your baby has thrush, an ear infection or a stuffy nose
- The nursing patterns and routines have changed (starting a new job, a new caregiver, starting daycare, etc).
- Your baby bit you during feeding and you both got a fright.
- Make sure you express or pump your milk to avoid feeling uncomfortably full. This will also help you keep up your milk supply and help when you try and relatch.
- Skin-to-skin cuddles. Strip yourself from the waist up, and have your baby just in a nappy. Cuddle in bed, or wherever you are comfortable. This helps your baby feel calm and secure. She will smell your familiar scent, hear your familiar heartbeat and the comforting touch. This cuddling gets the hormone oxytocin (known as the love hormone) flowing. This also aids in your let-down reflex. Spending time like this, she may seek your breast naturally herself.
- A newborn baby will generally nurse in any place, even if there are distractions around her. However, at around three to four months, she will start to become more aware of what is around her, and be distracted from feeding. If she can’t focus to feed, she may become overly hungry and tired, which will make it harder for her to latch. Try and find a quiet space away from any distraction, where you can just be together.
- You may, up until now, been feeding a certain way, such as cradling your baby in your arms, or using a nursing pillow. However, a change in position may be just the trick to get her to nurse again. Side-lying is a great one to try. Spread a blanket or towel on the bed to catch any leaks or spit-up. Lie on your side and position your baby on her side facing you. Pull her close and give her as little or as much assistance as she needs. You may need to cradle her head or support her back so that she doesn’t roll away, but this is a great position for you both to relax and rest.
- When your baby drinks, she breathes through her nose as she rhythmically sucks and swallows. If her nose is stuffy, due to a cold or allergies, she may not be able to nurse as she normally does, which will lead to frustration, and her becoming overly tired and hungry. Saline nasal drops or spray may help, but speak to your healthcare provider before trying a new treatment you haven’t used before.
- Have a warm bath together, with your baby lying on your chest. This skin-to-skin closeness may encourage her to latch.
- Use a small syringe or a small teaspoon to feed expressed milk to your baby little by little. If she is overly hungry, it may be hard for her to calm down and latch. If she has had a little taste of expressed milk, she is more likely to get going with the feeding again.
- Your baby may be teething and have sore or itchy gums. Use a teething ring, or a cold facecloth, doused in cool, boiled water and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge or freezer, can help relieve gums.
As Wendy shares, it is important to remember that a nursing strike is due to something that is bothering your baby – it’s nothing you did wrong. “Even if you screamed while being bitten, or were “too busy” or “too stressed” there is no reason for guilt here. These things happen in our lives … nursing strikes almost always work themselves out in due time.”
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.