By Alex MlynekUpdated Oct 13, 2020
Photo: Vanessa Cerday Photography
Shelly De Caria first tried to give her daughter Daniela a bottle of expressed milk when she was three months old, but she would have nothing to do with it. “She would not take that first suck,” the Ottawa mom recalls. “It was so frustrating.” Many parents want their breastfed baby to take a bottle, whether it’s so the other parent can help with middle-of-the night feedings, or mom can get out for a bit of time on her own. But not every baby willingly takes to bottle feeding. “There really are no guarantees,” says Nancy Mohrbacher, lactation consultant and author of Working and Breastfeeding Made Simple. “The baby is a person with an opinion.”
Still, there are ways to increase your chances of success. First, so that introducing the bottle doesn’t interfere with breastfeeding, you should wait to do it until your baby is at least least three or four weeks old, says Mohrbacher, and only if she is latching well while breastfeeding. Then, make sure both the baby and the person giving the bottle are calm. “Don't try to introduce a bottle when your baby is really worked up,” cautions Ottawa lactation consultant Fleur Bickford, adding that a good time might be when the baby is just waking up from a sleep.
As for supplies: choose a nipple that doesn’t have too wide of a base, as the baby needs to be able to get her lips and gums onto the base of the bottle nipple, explains Bickford. The length of the nipple is a factor too: if it’s too short, the baby won’t be able to suck properly. If it’s too long, the baby might gag. You’ll also want to start with a slow flow nipple, but unfortunately, this term is not standardized: different bottle brands will have different flows. If your baby isn’t doing well with one nipple, it may take some trial and error to find a nipple that works.
When your baby is first getting used to a bottle you’ll have the best luck with someone she knows well, like a parent or grandparent. But once bottle-feeding has been established and you want to pass the job off to to another caregiver, lactation consultant Fleur Bickford suggests leaving something behind that smells like mom, like a shirt she wore the day before, for the person to drape over themselves so he or she smells a little more like Mom.
Bickford suggests sitting the baby up in your arms and keeping the bottle horizontal to the floor. Touch the bottle nipple to his lips or his chin, and wait for him to open up. “You don't ever want to force a bottle into a baby's mouth,” she says. When the bottle nipple is in his mouth, let him suck for about 30 or 60 seconds (which is usually how long it takes for a mother’s breasts to letdown) before tipping some milk into the nipple. Watch your baby closely for signs he’s struggling–he’s splaying his fingers or toes, turning his head away, pushing the bottle away or milk is spilling out of his mouth. If this happens, tip the bottle so milk is no longer flowing and wait until he’s ready to start sucking again.
In an ideal world, your baby will happily take to this new way of feeding. But if he doesn’t, now’s the time to change up the nipples, give the bottle at a different time of day or have someone else give it a shot. If your baby wants to take the milk, but doesn’t seem to like the taste, it could be because of leftover soap in the bottle or excess lipase, explains Bickford, an enzyme that breaks down the fat in breast milk. (If the milk is broken down too much it affects the taste of the milk, although it’s not harmful to your baby. You can change the taste by scalding it before it is stored in the fridge or freezer.)
If you’ve exhausted your troubleshooting options and your baby still refuses the bottle, it’s time to get creative: you could try a straight-sided cup for the baby to lap the milk from, and Mohrbacher has also heard of parents who feed babies breast-milk slushies (allow frozen breast milk to thaw into a half-frozen consistency) with a small spoon (this would be safe once your baby is six weeks old). Some caregivers swear by bottle-feeding while walking around the house (distraction can help), other have more luck offering the bottle in the same spot the baby usually nurses. You may find that the baby is less confused—and more willing—to take a bottle from someone other than his or her mother. (Partners, aunties and grandparents should keep at it!)
Though Shelly tried many more times, and with a number of different bottles and nipples, Daniela, now 18 months, never did take a bottle. But her four-month-old brother, Paolo, is a bottle-guzzling champ, which comes in handy since De Caria is nursing them both. “My husband gave him his first bottle, and we were so proud. It was a huge relief for me.”