When your baby won’t breastfeed

If your baby refuses to breastfeed, it can come as quite a shock. You may feel bewildered, upset, and even rejected.

But try not to worry. When babies go on breastfeeding strike, it usually only lasts for a day or two, though it may be longer. It’s just your baby’s way of telling you that something’s not quite right.

Why do babies sometimes refuse to breastfeed?

Reasons why your baby may not want to breastfeed include:

  • She finds it difficult to latch on properly and can’t get a good enough mouthful of breast to feed. She may refuse your breast out of frustration. Your midwife or health visitor will be able to advise you, or ask to see a breastfeeding specialist.
  • Her mouth is painful, perhaps because she has a cold sore, or an infection such as thrush.
  • Her cold, or a stuffy nose, makes it hard for her to breathe while breastfeeding.
  • She has an ear infection, which makes breastfeeding painful when she lies on her infected ear.
  • She is teething.
  • Your milk supply has reduced, perhaps because you have been giving your baby formula feeds as well.
  • Your baby is easily distracted by noise or interruptions while she is breastfeeding.
  • There’s been a big disruption in your baby’s routine, such as if you have recently moved house or returned to work.

There are other, less common reasons for a breastfeeding strike:

  • Your baby doesn’t like the taste or smell of a cream or perfumed product you’ve put on or near your breasts.
  • There’s been a change in the taste of your milk, possibly caused by a sensitivity to certain foods, or the return of your periods.
  • You have an inflammation in your breast, or mastitis, which can make your milk taste salty in the affected breast. Keep expressing your milk. As your mastitis gets better, the saltiness will go.

What can I do to help my baby?

A breastfeeding strike can challenge even the most dedicated breastfeeding mum. While you’re racking your brains to work out what’s gone wrong, you may even feel that your baby doesn’t like you. As upsetting as being rejected for a feed can be, it can be overcome. Try to be patient, and don’t be afraid to ask for support and advice.

While still encouraging your baby to breastfeed, you will need to express your milk by hand or pump as often as your baby has been breastfeeding. You can then offer the milk to your baby by bottle, cup or spoon in the meantime. Talk to your midwife, health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist about the best way to do this.

This will help to keep your milk supply going, prevent engorgement or mastitis, and give your baby the milk she needs until she’s ready to breastfeed again.

There are steps you can take to encourage your baby back on to your breast:

  • Talk to a breastfeeding specialist, as they may help you to work out why your baby is refusing your breast.
  • Give your baby lots of skin-to-skin contact. Try breastfeeding without a top on or while sitting in a warm bath. A sling or carrier can help to keep your baby close to you between feeding attempts.
  • Try encouraging your milk to flow by putting warm flannels over your breasts before a feed. A drop of milk on the end of your nipple may tempt your baby to feed.
  • Try offering your breast when your baby is asleep, or very sleepy. Many babies who refuse to feed when they’re awake will do so when they are dozing.
  • Watch your baby for signs that she’s hungry (feeding cues). Opening and closing her mouth, making sucking noises, opening her eyes, or turning her head towards you, are all signs of readiness. Offer her your breast before she starts to cry, so that she’s not upset when you try to feed her.
  • Breastfeed on the move. She may be more likely to feed when you rock or walk her than when you’re sitting or standing still.
  • Find a quiet room to feed in. It’s common for a baby between six months and nine months to go on a breastfeeding strike as a result of a new-found discovery of the world. Babies of this age often prefer to snack at the breast instead of settling down for a meal. Try using a dimly lit, quiet room, away from background noise, such as the television.
  • See your doctor to rule out an ear infection or thrush.
  • Try different feeding positions, as your baby may find some positions more comfortable than others.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that a baby who doesn’t want to breastfeed is weaning herself. But if your baby is under a year old, and has been happily breastfeeding, it’s unlikely that she’s ready to give up yet.

How will breast refusal affect my baby?

When your baby goes on breastfeeding strike, it can be just as upsetting for her as it is for you. Try to keep other elements of your baby’s routine as normal as possible. Give her extra attention and cuddles.

If you are worried that your baby isn’t getting enough nourishment, or is dehydrated, keep track of her wet nappies. You’ll know she’s getting enough milk if she has at least five to eight wet nappies a day. See your doctor if you need advice or reassurance.

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