Breast-feeding strike: Why do babies refuse to nurse?
Medically reviewed on April 5, 2018
Many factors can trigger a breast-feeding strike — when a baby refuses to breast-feed for a period of time after breast-feeding well for months. Typically, the baby is trying to tell you that something isn't quite right.
During a breast-feeding strike, your baby might appear happy to go to your breast — but then act disinterested or start to cry. Sometimes a breast-feeding strike happens suddenly. In other cases, a strike begins gradually.
Causes of a breast-feeding strike
Common causes of a breast-feeding strike include:
- Pain or discomfort. Teething, thrush or a cold sore can cause mouth pain during breast-feeding, and an ear infection can cause pain during sucking. An injury or soreness from an immunization might cause discomfort in a certain breast-feeding position.
- Illness. A cold or stuffy nose can make it difficult for your baby to breathe during breast-feeding.
- Stress or distraction. Overstimulation, delayed feedings or a long separation from you might cause fussiness and difficulty nursing. A strong reaction from you to being bitten during breast-feeding might have the same effect. Sometimes a baby is simply too distracted to breast-feed.
- Unusual scents or tastes. Changes in your smell due to a new soap, perfume, lotion or deodorant might cause your baby to lose interest in breast-feeding. Changes in the taste of breast milk — triggered by factors such as the food you eat, your period or getting pregnant again — also can trigger a breast-feeding strike.
- Reduced milk supply. Supplementing with formula or using a pacifier too much might reduce your milk supply. Sometimes reduced milk supply is a sign of pregnancy.
Keep in mind that if your baby goes on a breast-feeding strike, it doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is ready to wean. Breast-feeding strikes are often short-lived.
Managing a breast-feeding strike
A breast-feeding strike can be uncomfortable for you and your baby. You might feel rejected and frustrated. Don't feel guilty, though — it's not your fault.
Be patient as you manage this change in your baby's eating habits. To prevent engorgement and maintain your milk supply, pump milk on the same schedule your baby used to breast-feed. You can feed the expressed milk to your baby with a spoon, dropper or bottle. You might also:
- Keep trying. Express milk onto your nipple or your baby's mouth to encourage him or her to nurse. If your baby is frustrated, stop and try again later.
- Change positions. Try different breast-feeding positions. If your baby is congested, hold him or her in an upright position during breast-feeding. It might also help to suction your baby's nose before feedings.
- Deal with distractions. Try feeding your baby in a dark, quiet room with no distractions. Or consider the opposite approach — turn your body so that your baby can face the activity.
- Cuddle your baby. Skin-to-skin contact between you and your baby might renew your baby's interest in breast-feeding.
- Address teething issues. If your baby is teething, rub his or her gums with a cool washcloth or your finger before a feeding. If your baby bites you during breast-feeding, try not to react too strongly. Simply slip your finger into your baby's mouth to quickly break the suction.
- Evaluate changes in your routine. Think about any changes in your routine that might be upsetting your baby. Are you stressed? Are you taking any new medications? Has your diet changed? Are you using a new type of perfume or fragranced soap? Could you be pregnant? Focus on taking good care of yourself.
If a breast-feeding strike lasts more than a few days, your baby has fewer wet diapers than usual or you're concerned about your baby's difficulty breast-feeding, consult your baby's doctor.