Breastfeeding

Nursing strikes

What's causing your baby to refuse to nurse? What to do when she refuses the breast

With two older kids romping around, I was often distracted while nursing my third child, Dan. When he was 10 months old, he caught me by surprise when he bit me. I yelped at the unexpected pain. Dan burst into tears. I knew I’d startled him, but didn’t realize how much I’d upset him until the next time I tried to feed him; he cried and turned away from my breast. Dan was on a nursing strike.

A nursing strike differs from natural weaning in that it starts abruptly and the baby often shows signs of being upset or unhappy. When babies wean naturally, it is a more gradual process as the baby slowly replaces nursing with other foods.

Determining the cause

I knew immediately why Dan was refusing to nurse. For Pamela Andrews, though, it was a complete mystery when her six-month-old son, Aidan, went on strike. “He would start to nurse, but then he’d cry and come off the breast. I thought he might be in pain so I took him to the doctor, but they couldn’t find anything,” says Andrews.

The doctor thought it might be a case of reflux and prescribed medication, but it didn’t seem to help. And treatments for thrush didn’t make any difference either.

Over the next excruciating three weeks, Aidan lost a total of 12 ounces. “I kept trying to figure out how to get him back on the breast, but nothing was working,” recalls Andrews. “I think it was the worst three weeks of my life.”

Thankfully, a chance encounter helped solve the mystery. Another mother, seeing Aidan laugh, commented, “Oh, your baby has a sore under his tongue — my baby had a sore like that and he didn’t want to nurse.” Andrews looked, and sure enough there was a canker sore at the base of Aidan’s tongue.

By this point, her milk supply had dropped. “I took domperidone to increase my milk production again and started pumping, and once the sore had healed, I was able to nurse him again,” Andrews says.

While Andrews eventually found the cause of Aidan’s strike, Nicole Green is still wondering why her daughter, Avery, abruptly started refusing the breast at seven months.

“Our breastfeeding up until this point had been textbook perfect — no trouble getting started, never had mastitis or any other problems,” Green recalls. “Then Avery simply refused the breast completely one morning. I cancelled all my plans for that day and the following few days, and just kept offering her the breast. I stayed in bed with her as much as possible, with lots of skin-to-skin contact. We took some warm baths together.”

But Avery still wouldn’t nurse.

“Then in the middle of the second night, after she’d already woken a couple of times, but refused to nurse, I brought her to the breast and expressed some milk into her mouth as she was crying,” Green says. “When she had so much milk in her mouth that she had to swallow, it was like, ‘Oh yes, I do like this!’ and she started to suck.”

The strike was over, and both Avery and her mom were happy again. “The whole thing only lasted about a day and half,” Green says, “but it was exhausting and worrying.”

She never did track down the cause of Avery’s nursing strike.

My son Dan’s aversion to nursing lasted about three days. What worked in the end was nursing him just as he was falling asleep. As he was drifting off, I latched him on to my breast. He sucked a few times, then stopped, looked up at my face and gave me a huge smile — and the nursing strike was over.

Pamela Andrews believes the key to getting through a nursing strike is “to just keep trying things until you find out what works. I saw a lot of people — doctors, lactation consultants, La Leche League leaders — and tried a lot of different things. It was very stressful at times. But it was worth it.”

Strike mandate

What’s causing your baby to refuse to nurse? Consider these possible factors:

• pain in the baby’s mouth (teeth, canker sores, thrush, a sore throat from a cold or virus)
• pain elsewhere (an ear or bladder infection)
• a change in the mother’s smell (perhaps you’ve switched to a new deodorant or perfume)
• baby has been getting lots of bottles recently, which may result in having difficulty sucking effectively at the breast
• something startling or frightening — perhaps a loud noise or sudden movement — happened while baby was nursing
• a change in the taste of mother’s milk (for example, from something she ate or drank, her menstrual cycle returning, mastitis or pregnancy