What is a nursing strike?
If a baby who has been quite happily breastfeeding suddenly starts to refuse the breast it could be a “nursing strike”. Sometimes this can be mistaken for the baby wanting to stop breastfeeding, but a baby who is ready to wean usually does so over a period of time. In nursing strikes the baby seems unwilling to feed even though he appears really unhappy about it.
Something happens which makes him not want to feed and it can take time and patience to help him return to the breast. Nursing strikes are nearly always a temporary reaction to something which has happened and the cause may never be discovered.1
What might cause a nursing strike?
The term nursing strike relates to an older baby who suddenly refuses to feed. If you have a newborn baby who is not feeding, please refer to the end of the article for relevant information.
Sometimes the cause is physical:
- The baby might have a stuffy nose or earache which is making feeding uncomfortable.
- He might have a sore throat or mouth. Some mothers have found a little injury such as a cut in their baby’s mouth or an ulcer which hadn’t been noticed.
- Hand, foot and mouth disease or chickenpox can cause a nursing strike as it is so uncomfortable to feed.
- He could have sore gums from teething, a thrush infection or even a urinary tract infection.
- He may be uncomfortable from a vaccination.
- He might be frustrated at a low milk supply or a change in milk taste due to something the mother has ingested. An oversupply of milk could also sometimes scare a baby who finds the flow overwhelming.
Sometimes the cause is emotional:
- A common cause of a sudden nursing strike is the baby being startled in some way while nursing, perhaps by a loud noise or by a mother involuntarily exclaiming when the baby bites.
- A mother may have been feeling stressed because of moving house, having visitors, travelling or dealing with a family crisis and put off nursing and the baby senses her distraction.
- A mother has changed her deodorant, soap, body lotion or perfume and so smells “different” to her baby.
- A new job may have meant a change in nursing habits or the baby being left with another carer for longer periods of time. Attempts to regulate nursing or offering too many bottles or dummies could also contribute to a baby refusing to breastfeed.
What can help end a nursing strike?
- If illness or injury might be the cause, then consulting a doctor about medication could be useful.
- Some babies will nurse, sometimes reluctantly, at night. Trying to nurse the baby in his sleep or when he is sleepy can work: it keeps him fed and helps with your milk supply.
- Trying to force him to feed won’t work and a baby will often get upset if a mother tries. Although it’s hard, being relaxed and offering cuddles and skin-to-skin contact helps keep you feeling close.
- Sing or rock the baby with your shirt open so perhaps he will relax and instinctively latch on. Sitting in a quiet room with dimmed lights and no distractions may help and so can taking a bath together.
- If you can get help with household chores and other children it means you can spend more time just relaxing with the baby.
- Try nursing somewhere different, while walking around, using a baby sling, sitting in the car, outside or at a friend’s house. You can also try a completely different position such as facing you or vertical. Some mothers have tried facing away from a room so that the baby can see what is happening while nursing.
- Rocking, dancing or doing the “baby bounce” (starting small but getting bouncier and bouncier) while holding him in a nursing position might help. Some babies love this, others don’t.
- Stimulate your let-down and get your milk flowing before offering the breast so the baby gets an immediate reward. You can also offer the baby something else to suck before offering to nurse so he is in “sucking” mode!
- If the baby continues to get upset when offered the breast it is sometimes necessary to stop offering for a day or two and let things settle down. You can then make it clear that your breast is available without forcing the issue. See the section below on milk supply for suggestions on preventing a drop in your milk production.
- If a baby has a sore mouth, some mothers have found offering breastmilk ice lollies before a feed can help to numb the mouth and make nursing more comfortable. Expressed breastmilk can also be frozen in cubes and offered in a clean cloth/muslin to suck on. This can be useful for a teething baby. Other mothers have offered a child analgesic as appropriate before trying to nurse.
- Sometimes these ideas will need to be repeated for a few days before things get back to normal.
Here are a couple of unusual ideas to try
- One solution that has worked for some mothers is to sit on an office chair, holding the baby in your lap but not at your breast. Ask someone to spin the chair around; not too fast but until you feel a little dizzy, and then offer the breast. It seems that being a little disorientated stimulates a natural instinct to go to the breast.
- Something which has also worked is for the mother to pretend to nurse a doll or cuddly toy, causing the baby to want his comfort back from the intruder!
What about my milk supply during a strike?
It’s natural to want to give the baby lots of other food and drink while he isn’t nursing. As as long as he is healthy, continue to offer his usual food and water but don’t rush to replace all his nursing needs with extra food immediately. Pumping or hand-expressing will maintain your milk supply and help prevent you from getting uncomfortably full, which might lead to plugged ducts or mastitis.
If the nursing strike continues for more than a day you can offer expressed milk in a cup, eye-dropper, feeding syringe or spoon. It is best to avoid bottles as they can cause nipple confusion.
Nursing strikes are distressing for mother and baby
It can be really upsetting and frightening to have a baby who has suddenly lost his main food source, his biggest comfort and a lovely way to fall asleep. You want to comfort him but he turns away. It can help to realise that he isn’t rejecting you. He doesn’t understand why breastfeeding is uncomfortable, he just thinks it is causing his discomfort and he is scared to try it again, even if the original problem is sorted out.
Almost all nursing strikes are temporary and end happily, although not necessarily quickly. Some mothers have reported nursing strikes that lasted almost three weeks, but more often the baby goes back to breastfeeding in a few days.
Even if the baby doesn’t immediately return to the breast you can continue to offer for as long as you want to. If it really does turn out to be one of the rare times when it is the end of breastfeeding, allow yourself to be sad and grieve for its sudden ending. Breastfeeding ideally continues until both the mother and baby are ready to stop, but sometimes the baby makes the decision for you both in spite of a mother’s efforts.
Note: If you have a newborn baby who is refusing to feed this is not a nursing strike.
See these posts for help or get support from an LLL Leader:
Written by Anna Burbidge for LLLGB, 2017
1 The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding 8th Edition, pages 407-409.