Q&A Café: Dealing with a Nursing Strike
This week’s reader question comes from Gena:
I was hoping you or your readers could help me with my dilemma. My son just turned 6 months old. About a month ago he started getting really frustrated when I fed him: He would latch on and suck two or three times and then pull aways and cry. It was so frustrating for us (probably mostly for me) that I started pumping and feeding him via bottle – he took to it. He still breastfed at night when we (middle of the night and then in the morning). Now he has been sleeping through the night more and as a result the night breast feed is no longer. I have been trying to nurse him in the morning, but he no longer even wants to latch on. Is there something I can do? Am I doing something wrong? I don’t mind pumping and bottle feeding him, but I worry that my milk won’t be the right kind for him (I’ve heard that their saliva dictates what goes in breastmilk). Do I have hope of nursing my little stubborn angel again?
Thank you for your question, Gena! I hope that we will be able to help you.
First of all, kudos to you for pumping for your son! Exclusively pumping is no easy task! And I’m sorry to hear that you are struggling to get your son back to the breast. It can be a difficult road, but it is definitely possible – especially as your son has not been off the breast for a very long time.
Firstly, you will want to ascertain why he was becoming fussy at the breast. How long was he behaving like this before you started pumping for him? Fussiness at the breast at various stages is very normal and can be down to a lot of different things.
The fact that your little man was quite happy to continue to nurse at night makes me think that the problem is probably not much to do with anything physical – such as overactive letdown or over/undersupply – and is probably a nursing strike.
I’ll just take this opportunity to explain nursing strikes, for those who may not know what they are. Nursing strikes are when a baby will stop nursing for a period of time. They are common, and usually very temporary lasting no longer than a few days at the most (although I have heard of some babies and children striking for weeks!) Nursing strikes in older babies are often mistaken for early self-weaning – however, self weaning generally happens gradually over a period of weeks or months. If a baby abruptly stops wanting to breastfeed, it is more likely to be a nursing strike.
Nursing strikes can be caused by a myriad of things – baby might have gotten startled at the breast, and now relates the breast to feeling scared. They may have an injury that could cause nursing to be uncomfortable (in younger babies, birth trauma. In older ones, perhaps a bump to the face/jaw). They may have a tongue-tie. You may be pregnant, and as such your milk’s flavour has changed. You may never pinpoint the reason why it happened – I certainly couldn’t when my monkey went through a nursing strike at 7 months.
So, from the information you’ve provided, I would certainly hazard a guess that this is what was going on with your son. And now he is used to the bottle (which is much ‘easier’ to feed from than a breast), which adds another dimension to your issue. He is a little old to be suffering with true nipple confusion – it’s more ‘nipple laziness’ by this point.
There are several ways you can go about tackling the issue. Below are some tips that you may find helpful.
How to deal with a nursing strike
- Firstly, relax! I know this is way easier said than done. There is very little that is more stressful than when your baby refuses to nurse. But forcing the issue is not going to help, and any extra tension in the air will simply add to the problem. Take any and all pressure off of yourself and your baby – this alone will make the nursing attempts a lot less stressful.
- As you’ve already discovered, even babies who point blank refuse to nurse during the day will often still nurse when they are half-asleep. You’ve said that he mostly sleeps through the night now, so obviously you won’t be wanting to wake him to nurse him. You might try laying with him during his naps so you can offer him the breast when he is asleep, or if this isn’t possible you can dash to him before he fully awakens after his nap to offer the breast. If you catch the right moment (still half asleep but stirring a little), you may find he will latch on and suckle. This will help your supply, and will ensure that he won’t fully ‘forget’ how to breastfeed.
- Instigate skin-to-skin sessions with no pressure to breastfeed. Strip off the baby and lay them on your bare chest, or snuggle up together in bed under a blanket. Make the breast available, but with no pressure to actually latch on to feed. Just enjoy the snuggles – this alone will help boost levels of oxytocin which is one of the important breastfeeding hormones (and it makes you feel happy!). You may find that, during one of these cuddle-fests, baby latches on of his own accord!
- Offer the breast as often as you normally would, unless baby gets distressed. The last thing you want is for the baby to associate breastfeeding with stressful feelings. Watch baby carefully and if you feel your offering is becoming stressful, stop and try again a few hours later.
- Before offering the breast, hand express briefly (until letdown if you can) so that the baby doesn’t have to ‘work’ too hard for the milk. Also, a few drops hand-expressed onto the nipple can work well to entice them to suckle.
- You may find that offering the breast in a darkened, quiet room is more fruitful than in a busier part of the house. If there are no distractions the baby will be more likely to latch on.
- When working through a nursing strike, it is generally recommended to avoid bottles, instead giving the baby their milk via a cup, syringe or spoon – this is to avoid nipple confusion (or nipple laziness in older babies).
- If bottles are used, as in your case, be sure to stick to the slowest flow teats you can get. Also, using a bottle such as the BreastFlow bottle will encourage the baby to use a similar sucking technique as they would if they were nursing. If you can replace some or all of the bottle feeds with cup feeds (at his age he will probably be able to manage quite well, with your help, with a free-flow sippy cup) this will certainly be beneficial.
In addition to all of the above, the following point – TIME – is probably the most important one. It may take a while for him to become interested in nursing again, and that’s okay. This process taking time does not mean that it’s not working. He may respond very quickly, or it could take weeks – but it will happen eventually. Keep the process as relaxed and positive as you can, for your sake as much as for your son’s.
I have already shared these links with you privately via email, but I will share them here again for the benefit of anybody reading this who may be experiencing this problem.
- A collection of articles about nipple confusion from La Leche League
- A useful article from LLL on getting babies back to the breast. Written with newborns in mind, but these tips are good for any age baby. There is also a link within to the LLL information pages on nursing strikes.
- A fab article from KellyMom with plenty of info on getting babies back to the breast.
Good luck, Gena, I really hope this has helped! Please feel free to comment below with further questions or information that could help us help you better. And, of course, we’d love to know how you get on!
Readers, can you help Gena? Have you ever dealt with a nursing strike? How did you battle through? What tips were you given, and which ones were the most helpful?