In this guide, we’ll teach you how to identify if the baby is truly refusing the breast (or if it’s something else) and some expert strategies to overcome this challenge together.
My baby refuses my breast... what now?
We all know about the benefits of breastfeeding for both the mother and the child, but what should you do when the baby is on a nursing strike and refuses your breast? Naturally, mothers become alert, worried, and may even feel a profound sadness, thinking there’s something wrong with their body or that they don’t know how to breastfeed.
Certainly, women are taught from an early age that they must take care of everything and everyone, and that it’s our fault if something isn’t right… And this dreadful teaching reflects in motherhood, especially in breastfeeding. Mothering, like breastfeeding, doesn’t come with an instruction manual!
In this guide, I’ll teach you how to identify if the baby is truly refusing the breast (or if it’s something else) and some strategies to overcome this challenge together.
Nursing strike signs: how to tell
The baby is indeed refusing the breast if they exhibit any of these behaviors:
- When you offer the breast, your baby pushes or turns away their face from the breast;
- Your baby consistently cries when placed on the breast;
- The baby seems uninterested or unenthusiastic when you attempt to breastfeed;
- Even with a proper latch, the baby lacks a strong suck or doesn’t swallow;
- Your baby stops nursing quickly after starting;
- The baby seems to prefer a bottle over the breast;
- Your baby suddenly changes behavior during breastfeeding;
- Your baby frequently cries after breastfeeding, indicating dissatisfaction or discomfort during feeding;
- The baby is not gaining weight as expected;
- If the refusal persists over time and in multiple attempts, it’s likely an chronic issue that needs professional intervention.
Why is the baby refusing the breast?
There are various reasons why a baby may refuse the breast, often being a temporary (non-chronic) issue that can be resolved with simple measures. Here are some common reasons when a baby refuses to breastfeed:
Discomfort or Pain
The baby may be experiencing discomfort or pain during breastfeeding due to issues such as colic, reflux, ear infections, teething, or other physical discomforts. It’s important to investigate, as it could be something easily resolved, like colic or teething, or something more serious (such as reflux, infections, or allergies).
Some babies may face temporary difficulties in sucking, such as problems with the correct positioning of the mouth, tongue, or lips. The assistance of a Lactation Consultant may be sufficient to correct a possible latch problem that hinders the baby’s suction, and to find different positions that might work better for you. If the baby has a “tongue tie” or cleft lip, it’s important to consult with the pediatrician, as this can also hinder suction.
Breast or Diet-Related Issues
Some breast problems can also hinder latch, suction, or the baby’s feeding, for example:
- Inverted nipple: if your nipple is inverted, you may need the help of a lactation consultant to apply techniques that help “shape the nipple” or “pull” the nipple so that the baby can latch correctly and breastfeed;
- Overproduction of milk: if the mother produces too much milk, it can cause the milk flow to be too fast, leading to reflux or choking in the baby, causing discomfort and potential refusal of the breast. In this case, pumping milk before breastfeeding can help remedy the situation;
- Maternal diet: much of what we eat and drink passes into breast milk and can even alter the taste of the milk. If your baby has always breastfed well and refuses occasionally, consider what you ate before breastfeeding and try eliminating that item from your diet to see if it influences breast refusal or acceptance.
The early introduction of a bottle or pacifier can cause nipple confusion, making the baby prefer one over the other. If you can breastfeed on demand, it’s best not to introduce a bottle (or pacifier) or minimize it as much as possible. If complete avoidance is not possible, look for training bottles that have spoons or dosers instead of nipples to avoid confusion.
Babies, especially younger ones, are still getting used to the world outside the womb. Some environments can be excessively chaotic, noisy, or stimulating (smells, sounds, lights), causing distraction and discomfort during breastfeeding. Moreover, changes in the baby’s routine, such as changes in the environment, travel, or stressful events, can affect the desire to breastfeed.
As you can see, the reasons can be many and varied, so it’s important to observe the context, the baby’s behavior, and, above all, seek professional help to identify the correct cause so that you can correct it once and for all and continue breastfeeding with ease.
Monitoring the baby’s weight gain within acceptable limits, regular urination (as breast milk combats dehydration, and a dehydrated baby doesn’t urinate frequently), and paying attention to any signs of discomfort or pain are crucial. If you’re concerned about any of the signs you’ve seen on the list, consult your pediatrician immediately to assess the situation and receive specific guidance for your baby’s situation.
How to deal with a Baby Nursing Strike
There are several strategies you can adopt if your baby is refusing the breast, although, of course, everything will depend on the reason for the refusal in your specific case. Here are some basic suggestions that usually work in cases that don’t require medical intervention:
Correct the latch
Latch is the issue in most cases. If the latch is not correct, the baby may not be able to suck efficiently, leaving the baby dissatisfied, possibly with colic (due to air intake during breastfeeding), and potentially causing cracks in the mother’s nipple. If the baby is only latching onto the nipple and not including the areola, the latch is incorrect.
Breastfeed in a calm environment
As mentioned earlier, an environment with many stimuli and confusion can cause stress and distraction in babies, hindering breastfeeding. If you usually breastfeed in the living room watching TV or while cooking or when the family talks loudly, try isolating yourself in a calm, distraction-free environment for breastfeeding. For example, go alone to the bedroom, close the curtain, and avoid bright lights and excessive noise to see if it facilitates breastfeeding. Generally, a calm environment makes the mother less stressed (which helps with breastfeeding) and the baby less distracted (which helps the baby focus).
Try Different Positions
For many women, talking about “breastfeeding positions” may sound strange, as we generally only learn one way to breastfeed. But, in reality, there are many different positions. Perhaps the “most common” position is not ideal for you and your baby. Other positions may be more comfortable for your baby and may even facilitate the correct latch.
Breast is the Answer to Everything
One of the most valuable pieces of advice my birth doula gave me when I had a child was: breast is the answer to everything. Hungry? Breast. Scared? Breast. Anxious? Breast. This worked like a magic recipe on vaccination days. That’s it. Don’t be afraid to make your baby “addicted” (that doesn’t exist!). Breastfeeding works like this: the more the baby nurses, the more milk you produce. By the way, both mother and baby learn by doing. So, try offering the breast at regular intervals, even if the baby initially refuses. Sometimes, consistency is the key.
Pump breast milk
If the baby is hesitant, try expressing a little milk and offer it using a cup or dosing spoon (to avoid nipple confusion). Additionally, expressing milk can be your greatest ally if you have very large breasts and produce a large amount of milk, which may be choking the baby during breastfeeding.
Stimulate Sucking and Interest
Instead of simply “placing” the baby on the breast, try squirting a little milk before and rubbing it with the tips of your fingers on your nipple and then bringing it close to the baby’s nose and mouth. Smell is crucial in human nutrition, and this will stimulate your baby to open their mouth wide for the latch.
Stay Calm and Don’t Give Up
Laura Gutman wrote that the baby is the “shadow of the mother.” They reflect everything and feel what the mother feels. It may seem unscientific, but if you’re a mother, like me, you’ve probably seen it firsthand. Yes, your stress can be transmitted to the baby. They feel our tension, anger, our stress, and this can hinder breastfeeding. Hence the importance of a calm environment. Maintain a calm and affectionate approach during breastfeeding attempts, talk, and explain everything to your baby. You’ll understand each other.
Remember, each baby is unique, and it may be necessary to try various approaches to find the one that best suits your little one. Persistence and professional support can make all the difference in this process!