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Mother holding a crying baby

Nursing strikes: When your baby refuses to nurse

Mother holding a crying baby2

June 24, 2020

By Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC

It is concerning and confusing when a baby who has been breastfeeding well suddenly refuses to nurse. A mom may think it means her baby wants to wean from breastfeeding. In reality, a sudden refusal to breastfeed rarely happens because a baby wants to wean. More likely, it is a temporary bump in your breastfeeding journey called a nursing strike.

What is a nursing strike?

A sudden refusal to nurse after breastfeeding is well established is considered a nursing strike.
Breastfeeding is considered established when your baby is latching on without having any difficulties for about four weeks.

What can cause a nursing strike?

Many things can result in a baby refusing to breastfeed, including:

  • Baby is teething.
  • Baby has oral thrush, which can make nursing uncomfortable for him.
  • Baby has a stuffy nose, so it is hard for her to breathe while breastfeeding.
  • Baby has an upset tummy.
  • Baby has an ear infection.
  • Baby is going through developmental stages where he is very distracted by things going on around him. This can result in the baby not wanting to stay still long enough to feed.
  • Baby is frightened if when she bites you, you yell out.
  • Mom has eaten something that has flavored her milk, and her baby doesn’t like the taste.
  • Mom has changed deodorant, soap, or perfume, and her baby doesn’t like the smell.
  • Mom has low milk supply.
  • Mom has delayed let-down reflex.

How long can a nursing strike last?

Most nursing strikes last two or three days. They can last longer, though. In some cases, they have lasted several weeks.

What can I do to help end a nursing strike?

There are several things you can try to help bring a nursing strike to an end, including:

  • Offer your breast to your baby at typical feeding times.
  • If your baby cries and gets upset when you offer the breast, take a break for a day or two from trying to breastfeed.
  • Instead, spend time cuddling your baby while you are bare-chested. This allows your baby to latch on if she desires. Make these cuddle times fun and comforting.
  • Take a bath together with your baby.
  • Try breastfeeding in a different position than what you typically use.
  • If your baby is able to take a cup, try offering your pumped milk in a cup instead of a bottle. Drinking from a cup creates a different experience. This can encourage your baby to breastfeed if she wants to suck.
  • Minimize distractions by offering your breast to your baby in a quiet, darkened room.
  • Offer your baby some milk in a bottle, and then after she has finished half of it, try switching her to the breast.
  • Offer your breast when he is sleepy. This can be either when he is falling asleep or just waking up.

If it feels like breastfeeding is becoming a battle, spend more time doing things you both enjoy, like cuddling and playing.

What are important things to do during a nursing strike?

  • Give your baby space when your baby pushes away or cries when you offer your breast. When breastfeeding becomes a battle, it may lead to a longer nursing strike.
  • Keep in mind that a nursing strike is not personal. When a baby refuses to breastfeed, they are not refusing you.
  • Make sure your baby is getting the milk she needs every day.
  • Rule out any physical illness in your baby that might be causing him to refuse to breastfeed.
  • Keep up your milk supply by pumping regularly. You will want to pump every time your baby gets a bottle or cup of milk.
  • Rule out pregnancy, which often results in a decreased milk supply.

How will I know if my baby really does want to wean?

If your baby has not resumed breastfeeding after four to six weeks, her refusal to latch probably is a sign she is ready to wean. Depending on your baby’s age and your breastfeeding goals, you can continue to pump and feed your milk to your baby in a cup or bottle, or switch to formula. If your baby is a year old or older, you can gradually decrease your pumping and let your milk supply dry up.

Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC is a freelance writer who has been helping moms and babies breastfeed for over twenty-five years. She is married and the mother of three adult children.

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