Nursing strikes occur most often in babies older than 3 months of age. Typically the baby has been nursing well and then suddenly will refuse to nurse for no apparent reason. Many mothers wonder if their babies may be self-weaning, but natural, baby-led weaning is rare during the first year and is more gradual than sudden. During a strike a baby is also many times obviously unhappy about the situation. When he is naturally weaning himself, however, he is most likely not distressed with the change.
A nursing strike usually lasts just a few days but may persist for a week or two. Even though a lot of mothers do choose to wean during a strike, most babies can be coaxed back to the breast with some patience and determination. It may take some detective work to find the cause. All of the following are known to occasionally result in a strike: teething, illness, sores in the baby’s mouth, a change in the taste of the milk, apprehension as a result of the mother’s reaction to being bitten, prolonged separation between mother and baby, the frequent use of bottles or the pacifier, low milk supply, etc. Some lactation experts believe that a nursing strike can many times precede the baby’s mastery of a developmental skill such as crawling, standing, or walking. And sometimes the cause is never known.
Following are some suggestions that you may find helpful in persuading your reluctant nurser back to the breast:
• Before attempting to feed at all, pump a few minutes. This will elicit letdown so that the baby gets a quick reward. It will also elongate the nipple for him.
• Also before feeding, offer him your index or pinky finger nail-side down to suck on for several minutes. This suck-training teaches him to drop his tongue down as he must do with breastfeeding. This is also a good way to calm the baby should he become upset as you offer your breast.
• Breastfeed frequently – as often as you can. Attempt to feed before the baby gets too hungry – when he is sucking on his fingers or rooting, but before he cries. If you can catch him early he may be more willing to work with you.
• You also might try nursing when he is a little drowsy. Some babies are more willing to take the breast when they are semi-asleep than when fully awake. Try nursing as he is beginning to get sleepy or just beginning to wake up. Some mothers find that their babies will instinctively nurse well once completely asleep.
• Try different nursing positions. Nursing while lying down often helps minimize any distractions that may interfere with nursing. Nursing in a quiet, dark room may also be helpful.
• Nurse while in motion – as you walk, sway, rock, bounce, etc.
• Provide lots of skin-to-skin contact when nursing and at other times as you can. Undress baby to his diaper and remove your blouse if possible. Try nursing while you both enjoy a warm bath.
• Drip expressed breastmilk over your nipple in the corner of the baby’s mouth using an eyedropper or feeding syringe while he is at the breast.
• If the strike persists for more than a few days, the baby may be more willing to nurse at the breast if the flow of milk is instant and constant. A nursing supplementer can help you achieve this.
• If baby becomes upset as you are trying, stop and attempt to calm him before trying again. Nursing should not become associated with unpleasantness.
You will need to express your milk as often as the baby was nursing in order to maintain your supply during the strike. If the strike persists for more than a day or so, consider using a pump that will allow you to pump both breasts simultaneously. Doing so will increase the hormone that causes milk production.
If you must offer your expressed milk to your baby, do so with an alternative feeding device such as a cup, spoon, feeding syringe, medicine/eye dropper, or nursing supplementer rather than a bottle. If you choose to use a bottle anyway, use a newborn or slow flow nipple so that they baby still has to work hard with the bottle. Use an Avent bottle if possible.