What’s a nursing strike? Nothing to do with picket lines or protest signs ― it’s when your baby abruptly refuses to breastfeed. Sometimes the cause remains a mystery, but often mothers can trace it back to something upsetting during a feeding. Perhaps Mom yelled because the baby bit down, perhaps a toddler spilled an ice-cold drink on the baby while she was nursing, perhaps a stuffy nose or sore throat made nursing unexpectedly painful.
Mom Darcie Light experienced two of these frustrating situations with her second baby. The first, when he was three months old, started with a cold that stuffed up his nose. “He nursed at 6 a.m. and then would not nurse again. I had to express milk to prevent engorgement. In the afternoon, we went to bed and suffered through a few hours of sleep, tears, skin-to-skin time and feeding with an eyedropper. Finally he nursed again at 3 p.m. Only nine hours without nursing, but a long, exhausting day.”
The next time, Light was enjoying a beach vacation with her family when the baby ― now ten months old ― had an allergic reaction to sunscreen. “He nursed normally at bedtime, but when he woke up in the middle of the night, he refused,” Light recalls. Daddy walked him back to sleep, but he continued to wake, unhappy, but unwilling to nurse. Light expressed her milk and froze some of it. The housekeeper who came to their hotel room commented that he looked like he was teething, and when Light gave him some of the breastmilk ice cubes she’d made during the night, he eagerly chewed and sucked on them. That seemed to resolve the problem, and by the end of the day he was nursing again.
Whatever the cause, getting the baby back to the breast can sometimes be challenging, so here are some ideas that have worked for other moms:
1. Check to see if the baby is experiencing physical problems. One mother found a small piece of paper stuck to the top of the inside of her baby’s mouth. Once she removed it, her baby went happily back to the breast. Other babies have resisted breastfeeding because of ear infections (the suckling can make it hurt more), bladder infections, which can make urination painful (babies often pee when they nurse), stuffy noses or teething problems. Also, if you think the cause is something like a new perfume that makes you smell different, try avoiding all perfumes and deodorants for a day or two.
2. As much as possible, avoid giving your baby pacifiers or bottles during the strike. Sucking is a natural need for babies, and you want him to only be able to satisfy that at the breast. If your baby has been getting the occasional bottle and needs to continue, it can help to keep them to a minimum and to have someone other than Mom do any bottle-feedings. Of course you won’t let your baby get dehydrated, but if he’s doing OK, don’t offer too much food and water ― again, so you can encourage him to satisfy his hunger and thirst at the breast.
3. You may need to pump or hand-express your milk to maintain your milk production and to prevent plugged ducts and breast infections. You can give your baby your milk in a cup, with a syringe or frozen into mummy’s milk pops or ice cubes.
4. Be patient! Trying to force your baby to breastfeed may make things worse. You want her to feel happy and relaxed at the breast, so spend lots of time cuddling together skin-to-skin with no pressure to latch on and eat.
5. Often the best time to get your baby back to the breast is when she’s falling asleep, sound asleep, or just waking up. Again, approach this gently ― if she wakes and protests, don’t force things. Often babies will latch on even when sound asleep.
6. Take a bath together. In the relaxing warm water, with your breasts readily available, your baby may just latch on again. Or go outside ― sometimes the sun and fresh air can put baby in a nursing mood.
7. Movement can help, so try putting your baby in your sling or wrap and offering to nurse while you walk around the room. Or try rocking in a rocking chair.
8. Sometimes getting baby and mother skin-to-skin in a dark, quiet room seems to remind the baby of those early breastfeeding days and encourage him back to the breast.
9. Music can be soothing to both mom and baby. Try playing relaxing music while you sing along, or just sing without the background music as you encourage him to nurse. Your baby got to know the sound of your voice while you were pregnant, and it is familiar and comforting to him to lie on your chest and listen to you singing.
10. Especially with older babies, spending time with other nursing babies or toddlers can remind her of how much she really does love nursing. Invite your friends over for a nurse-in!
Most nursing strikes are resolved within a day or two although some can last longer. If these strategies don’t work for your little one, you may want to contact a La Leche League Leader or Lactation Consultant for additional suggestions.