Just after my son turned one, I returned to work and he started going to nursery. He picked up hand, foot and mouth disease during his first few weeks there, and so began his first nursing strike. He became dehydrated, as he was barely having any fluids, and after six days the doctor sent us to the hospital. Fortunately, after some anti-inflammatory mouth spray and treatment for oral thrush, he latched on again and fed. It was the hardest week for our whole family.
I could see that my son wanted to feed and have the security of the breast, but he just couldn’t and he would get upset if I offered. The effect on my husband was apparent as well: he was witnessing a distressed, unwell child and having to navigate around his wife’s emotionally labile state. He also had his own feelings about breastfeeding and wondered if it was time to wean my son. I found this particularly upsetting, as I knew there was a reason for my son’s nursing strike and I knew neither of us was ready to stop. However, this was a difficult concept to explain in my emotional and scared state, as everything I said sounded a bit irrational.
At first I didn’t know it was a nursing strike. It’s not necessarily something you know about until it happens and you start doing some research online. I assumed that he would feed the next time I offered, or that he would ask, but time kept going on and he didn’t. A day passed, and then another, and I began to worry about my supply. I had only just started expressing on my return to work, so it wasn’t something I was familiar with.
I felt scared that our breastfeeding relationship may have come to an abrupt stop, worried that my supply would drop so much that I wouldn’t be able to nurse him if he became interested in the breast again, terrified at the thought I may have lost the best tool to get him to sleep and wouldn’t know how else to help him settle. I felt guilty about my son’s illness because I was the one who had sent him to nursery, somehow at fault because if he wasn’t feeding I must have been doing something wrong, and unsure about how long to keep expressing before giving up and accepting that he wasn’t going to breastfeed again. I generally felt very emotional and not in control of my feelings.
I read as much as I could about nursing strikes to understand what I could expect and contacted my local LLL Leader, as well as my GP and a paediatrician. I upgraded from my hand pump to a double electric pump and got myself into a routine of expressing at similar times to his normal feeds. I even mimicked cluster feeds and woke in the night to express.
I took as much time off work as I could, took fenugreek supplements and ate porridge! I told a close breastfeeding friend what I was going through and was honest with my husband about how upsetting it all was for me. I kept offering the breast to my son and tried to relax and not to get upset when he didn’t feed. Most of all, I trusted my own instincts.
With the medication my son’s condition improved and we were allowed out of hospital once he had taken some oral fluids. The first time he latched on again I felt the biggest emotional and physical relief. 168 hours and 48 minutes after his last breastfeed. I was still worried it might be a one off, but it wasn’t and he breastfed for long periods and re-established my supply. I was able to stop expressing and we got back to our normal routine. I was proud of myself for persevering and trusting myself that it wasn’t time to stop.
Unfortunately, a few months later he got an ear infection and a mouth full of ulcers, which brought on a second nursing strike. I dreaded what was to come and, despite knowing he had gone back to breastfeeding before, I still worried it might be the end of our breastfeeding relationship. I did, however, feel I knew how to maximise our chances of restarting, so I did everything I could again. This time it lasted five days. When he went back on the breast he looked at me and gave himself a clap.
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few tips you may find useful:
- Stick to your usual routine and offer the breast when you normally would, as well as when the baby shows some interest.
- Give as much love and physical contact as you can to your nursling.
- Don’t express in secret. My son’s second nursing strike ended when I was expressing in front of him. He pulled it away and latched himself on.
- The volume you get after expressing isn’t as important as the number of times you pump to maintain your supply.
- Both our nursing strikes were caused by illness. Whatever the cause of a nursing strike your child is at risk of dehydration; getting proper medical guidance is vital, as a child can deteriorate rapidly.
- Remind yourself what an amazing job you’re doing.
Getting support from an LLL leader and a breastfeeding friend was the best thing I did. To know I was doing everything I could to re-establish breastfeeding, if my son wanted to, made me feel stronger and more able to cope. Sharing my anxieties with someone who understood the breastfeeding bond helped me enormously. Looking after myself was also very important: the stress and anxiety I felt was huge and not something I was used to. Understanding the hormonal response and psychological effect such an abrupt stop had on the relationship I had with my son made me feel less like I was being irrational and more like I was having a normal response to the situation. That allowed me to be in a better position to explain my feelings, the reasons for the strike, what I was trying to do to my husband and close family. This stopped the unhelpful comments like ‘perhaps it’s time to wean’, and ‘maybe you should just accept he doesn’t want to feed anymore’. Instead I felt supported emotionally and physically.