Coping with a Nursing Strike

As moms, we’ve all been there. Out of the blue (as we thought) our baby suddenly refuses to nurse. He or she is on strike, but not in the traditional sense of the word. While your baby may be refusing to nurse, this could be a sign of some other factors. Your baby needs to eat, that is a given. But what if he or she simply refuses?

Nursing or breastfeeding strikes are common. They can also be one of the most frustrating cycles of parenting a nursing infant or toddler. You’ve done everything right, and suddenly, baby says no to the breast. Fortunately, most nursing strikes are short-lived. Here are the causes and some remedies if you find yourself up against a striking infant.

What Exactly is a Nursing Strike?

It’s easy to confuse a nursing strike with the time to wean your baby from your breast. Weaning typically occurs slowly over many months or weeks. As your baby’s mom, you’ll notice this deliberate but gentle change in behavior. It’s common, and normal.

However, a nursing strike is the exact opposite. If your baby refuses the breast, this is a typical indicator of a nursing strike. It’s alarming. Both you and your baby may be upset. If your baby has been excellent at nursing, it can come as a shock to you. For baby, he or she will be upset, and hungry. That hunger may exacerbate fits of sleeplessness in both you and your baby. A nursing strike will remove the once calming and satisfying aspects of breastfeeding from your baby’s routine.

For moms and dads, it’s a layer of frustration that piles on to the stresses of parenting an infant. The good news is that most nursing strikes will end in three to five days.

Causes of Nursing Strikes

Like any event that affects your baby, the causes could be many. Typically, most nursing strikes are your baby’s reaction to circumstances that are temporary in nature. Remember that your baby’s desire to feed serves many purposes beyond feeding. Nursing also reinforces baby’s sense of security and the bond shared between the two of you.

That being said, keep in mind those external factors along with changes in baby’s developing body that could be the cause.

First, take note of any changes in your routines. Have you returned to work recently? Changes in your nursing routine and the stresses of work will affect your baby, and may be affecting your milk supply. In addition, if you’ve had a home full of visitors or have been traveling, these stressors can also be a cause of the nursing strike. In any of these situations, take care to minimize how these events impact your baby. It’s a delicate balancing act for nursing moms.

Second, be aware of your own personal hygiene choices. Yes, that deodorant or soap you love may not be pleasant to your baby. Likewise, changes in laundry soaps or fabric softeners may also by off-putting. Take note of the smallest details in your day to day routines.

Third, has your baby been sick? Ear infections, common colds, even immunizations, all can cause a nursing strike. Teething can also be a culprit. As a mom, you’re going to be in tune with how your baby is feeling.

In the end, it’s all in the details. When a nursing strike happens, take a look at the overall picture. Any change―even that much anticipated vacation―can induce stress. And that stress can lead to the nursing strike you may now be facing.

First Steps

During a nursing strike is when dad or a caregiver will need to answer the call to duty.

Your baby will need to keep feeding. Dads, you can step in here with bottle feedings. Why? Because we want your baby to associate mom with nursing, not the bottle. Find a bottle with a nipple whose flow rate is as close to the breast as possible. If the bottle isn’t working, try an eyedropper, spoon, or cup. The goal here is to keep your baby fed, but not transition away from the breast. This is a temporary solution to a temporary situation.

This one goes without saying moms, but protect your milk supply. When your baby strikes, pump or express your milk when you can to avoid engorgement. Additionally, you’ll need that supply to tide your baby over until the strike ends.

Finally, keep at those things that continue to nurture the bond between you and baby. Maximize skin to skin contact. Allow your baby to suck at the breast. He or she may not feed, but the sucking may initiate an end to the nursing strike. Whatever your method, don’t pressure your baby to return to nursing. Instead, continue with creating those tender moments that solidify the bond between you two.

Nursing Strikes During Your Period

It is true that your period will affect your breast milk. However, it’s important to consider the timing of your periods. For many women, their periods will not return until many months into their breastfeeding schedule. This usually happens when your baby will begin sleeping through the night without additional feedings or after the introduction of solid foods. Both of these events are significant in that they are also associated with less stimulation to the breasts. As this stimulation decreases, your period will likely return. However, this is not true for all women. Some nursing moms experience an earlier onset of their period after giving birth.

Nursing strikes are common during ovulation. Why? Because the hormonal changes can cause a temporary drop in milk supply in the days leading up the beginning of their period. This slight decrease may carry over for a few days into the cycle before production returns to normal.

The hormonal changes can also affect the taste of your breast milk. Your diet will also affect taste. Be sure to continue with your diet as usual to ensure the taste of your breast milk returns to normal as your period winds down.

Your period could also cause nipple tenderness. It’s unpleasant for you, and your reaction may cause your baby to pull away from the nipple. A calcium and magnesium supplement will help remedy this symptom.

Know that your supply and the taste will return to normal after bleeding starts. Give your baby plenty of opportunities to nurse during the strike, but supplement when needed. If you notice that the supply is good, but that taste may be off, try a spoon or syringe while nursing with some of your reserved milk to improve the taste.

Nursing Strikes During Ear Infections

Ear infections are painful for babies. If you’ve been through a round of ear infections with your baby, you more than know how debilitating this simple infection can be. Unfortunately, an ear infection can make nursing an unpleasant affair.

The sucking action associated with nursing can exacerbate the pain felt. It’s likely that your baby may stop feeding altogether because of the pain. But there are ways to address this situation if a nursing strike follows.

Most importantly, know the symptoms. Ear infections often mimic the common cold. A runny nose, fever, decrease in appetite, and change in demeanor are all symptoms of an ear infection. Sleep patterns are also affected, as being in a reclined position will force fluid into the ear, causing increased pain.

If you suspect an ear infection, see your pediatrician. A round of antibiotics can lessen the severity of the symptoms and clear up the infection. You can help by keeping your baby upright until the symptoms subside. Also try changing up nursing positions. Keep your baby’s head lifted up to avoid ear pain. As medications clear up the infection, gently return to nursing. In the meantime, supplement with droppers or bottles until your baby is able to latch and suck without discomfort.

Nursing Strikes After Vaccines

Vaccinations are painful. You know from your baby’s response how he or she reacts. Most babies will sleep afterward. Fevers are common, as is localized pain at the immunization site. Like an illness, the discomfort caused by immunizations could cause your baby to refuse to nurse. It’s important to note that immunizations do not induce nursing strikes on their own. It is instead the side effects of the immunizations that could lead to the strike.

After immunizations, take care to avoid pushing against the immunization site when nursing. Changing sides or nursing positions can often get your baby back to nursing after a round of immunizations. The main goal is to manage your baby’s pain and to keep nursing as comfortable as possible. As most side effects from immunizations wear off in two days or less, the length of the strike should be short.

Nursing Strike at Six Weeks

A six week old infant is nowhere near close to weaning him or herself from the breast. But nursing strikes do happen at this age. Often enough, the reason is the baby’s age. At six weeks some babies are still learning to properly suck, or may still have difficulty in latching on to your breast.

If your baby is in this age bracket, consider checking with a lactation consultant or your pediatrician. Chances are they may have a tongue or other mouth issue that is preventing them from latching properly.

Also consider using a lactation shield. The shield will elongate the nipple and make for easier latching. If your baby feeds easier from a bottle, this could be the cause. A bottle’s nipple reaches back into the throat, allowing for an easier delivery of milk or formula.

Remember that your baby is smarter than you think. If using bottle feedings to supplement when you’re not home, your baby may be starting to prefer the ease that bottle feeding offers. Instead, start limiting the use of bottles. While a burden on you, it will help baby return to the breast.

It’s important to also consider social circumstances at six weeks of age. For many working moms this is when maternity leave expires and they transition back to work. As you can imagine, this change will affect your baby. With increased bottle feedings while you’re working, your baby may begin to move away from the breast. Instead of forcing the breast, always keep it available when you’re home. Reinforce the positive aspects of your breasts and the intimacy between you and your baby.

Nursing Strike at Ten Months

By ten months of age most babies are set to feed without any assistance. If your baby strikes during this time, look at all the factors in your situation.

First, have you returned to work? As discussed previously, this will impact your baby’s desire to breastfeed.

Second, this is a time in baby’s life when her environment is providing much more stimulation. Toys and other people will more easily distract her. As such, try and keep feedings free of those distractions. Turn off televisions. Supplement background noise with calming music or soundscapes. This is an exciting time for your baby (and you).

Stay with the basics during this time to maintain breastfeeding. Plenty of skin to skin contact will ensure that he or she will latch on during those tender moments. It’s important to keep the breast available, but not to force it. Opt for plenty of time alone or as a family to give your baby a rest from the distractions of her ever-busier life, and to allow for feedings that aren’t rushed.

Nursing Strikes and Teething

At approximately six months your baby may start teething. With teething will come a range of symptoms from sore gums, to fever, and physical pain in general. It’s not a pleasant time for your baby, and you will also be feeling it. Teething will interfere with sleep, and more importantly, nursing.

It’s not uncommon for your baby to stop nursing when teething. His or her sore gums will make sucking unpleasant or even painful. And your nipples may also take the brunt of teething as your baby gnaws away to soothe her gums.

Instead of fighting her to nurse, alleviate the teething symptoms. A frozen teething ring or an ice cube is a great way to numb the gums and get her to nurse. Better yet, a frozen cube of your breast milk will do the same thing while bringing some nourishment. Try nursing after icing down her gums. If she still refuses, try the ice again and repeat.

Sometimes an over the counter pain reliever will take the edge off and allow her to nurse. But avoid topical anesthetics. In addition to the health risks associated with these drugs, they can also cause difficulty swallowing and lead to asphyxiation.

Teething is a challenge. Fortunately, the old methods of icing the gums and using pain relievers should get your baby back to nursing with minimal interruption.

Nursing Strikes After Biting

Sooner rather than later, your baby’s mouth will fill with teeth. Many moms associate this with a time to begin weaning. But it’s not necessary to wean at this time because biting is not always associated with teething.

Take cues from your baby. Sometimes biting can be nothing more than a sign of boredom. If you feel your baby’s latch loosen, maybe he’s done feeding. Remove him from the breast and see how he reacts. If he’s happy, all is well.

How you react also plays a part in a strike after biting. Did you scream? Or pull away the nipple hurriedly? Your baby will see any reactions in those categories as traumatic and will associate your response with breastfeeding.

What to do? Avoid reacting to an innocent bite. Accidents do a happen. If the biting appears to be behavioral, a simple “No” and releasing baby from your breast will do.

If your baby is teething, consider beginning the nursing session with a bottle or dropper. Once they are in feeding mode, allow them to latch onto the breast. In time, baby will learn to nurse without biting. Feel for baby’s tongue against your nipple. With a proper latch, your baby’s tongue will be between the nipple and bottom teeth. If you feel the teeth, adjust your baby for a proper latch.

Biting is not pleasant. Identify the cause (teething or behavior) and adjust as necessary. With older babies, address biting with gentle reprimands. In younger infants and teething babies, ensure a proper latch and make them comfortable.

Toddler Nursing Strikes

By one year of age most babies are ready to be weaned from the breast. Toddlers are certainly ready for weaning. But if your toddler continues to nurse and stops suddenly, then that could be a nursing strike.

The primary difference between toddlers and babies is that it is all right for them to wean themselves from the breast.

However, a sudden decision to stop nursing could indicate something else. Has your toddler been healthy? Any signs of ear infection? Have there been any changes in his family life? What about daycare? A toddler is experiencing his world in larger and larger doses. Daily events and big changes will have their impacts.

Like any nursing strike, take all things into account and proceed as you would for a nursing strike when he was an infant.

On the flip side, it’s possible that your toddler is transitioning away from the breast. It’s natural. If the change hasn’t been abrupt or accompanied by any social stresses or illnesses, then the chances are that is what’s happening. Sometimes this can be more stressful for you as a mom. Again, don’t force the breast. Keep it available for those times he needs it. Gradually, he will completely move away from nursing.

Nursing Strikes on One Side Only

This will come as no surprise, but some babies actually do prefer one breast over the other. If your baby strikes against one breast, do not concern yourself too much. If she is nursing from the other breast without a change in her schedule, then she should be receiving enough milk.

There are reasons why babies prefer one breast over the other. One breast may let down milk at a faster rate, making it easier for your baby to feed. You may notice that one breast has more outlets for the milk than the other. Further, an engorged breast is more difficult to feed from. Latching is difficult on an engorged breast.

Another reason could be taste. Milk from an injured breast or one with mastitis will taste differently. Allow the breast to heal and resume feeding from that side.

It is important not to neglect the breast your baby is striking. Be sure to express the milk regularly to prevent engorgement. Massage the breast to keep the supply flowing. And continue to offer that breast to your baby. While he may not nurse from it regularly, if you offer it to him, he may latch on. Also, be sure to use different feeding positions with the striking breast. A nipple turned in a certain direction may offer better flow when you adjust the feeding position.

When a Sick Baby Refuses to Nurse

A sick baby just won’t nurse at times. Again, it’s a natural reaction, similar to teething, pain, or other discomfort. But it’s important to get your baby back to nursing as soon as possible.

Check for all the signs of any illness: congestion, fever, rashes, and changes in appetite. These can all signal what you and your baby are dealing with. Remember, with colds or an ear infection, being on one side can be painful. Try adjusting the feeding position.

With common colds, the draining mucus can fill your baby’s stomach. Expect a drop in appetite with cold symptoms. Use a bulb to keep the nasal cavities clear. When feeding, keep your baby upright. As the symptoms lessen, your baby should return to nursing as usual.

In more severe cases, such as the flu, the refusal to nurse can be very detrimental. If your baby is sick and refuses to nurse or take fluids by any means, seek immediate medical advice. Often, dehydration will only prolong a nursing strike. As a parent, the best plan of action is to not let a nursing or general feeding strike go too far.

How to get Baby to Nurse Again

Fortunately, most nursing strikes are short-lived. There are many ways to overcome a nursing strike in most any situation. Look at the specifics of your situation and address them. Afterwards, try these methods to get your baby back to nursing:

  • Don’t stress over it. Your baby will latch on to your emotions and prolong the strike.
  • Be ready to try new nursing positions. What’s comfortable for you may not be for baby.
  • Use plenty of skin to skin contact. Nurturing that bond will often end a nursing strike. A good friend of mine overcame a nursing strike by taking her baby into a long, warm, steamy shower with her.
  • Stimulate your breasts before nursing so your baby doesn’t have to work as hard. This works especially well in babies who may be accustomed to bottles.
  • Warm baths. They’re relaxing and the warmth can help your milk flow more freely.
  • Avoid areas filled with distractions.
  • Alter your nursing routine. While routines are good, sometimes baby will need variety. Try nursing while moving. Offer the breast when baby is drowsy. Sometimes baby will be more agreeable when not expecting to nurse.
  • No pressure. When your baby strikes, keep the breast available. But don’t force it. Lay in bed topless, and let him or her find the breast on their own.

What if My Baby Won’t Nurse?

No matter how hard you try, sometimes your baby just won’t nurse. If this happens, take a close look at the entire situation.

Is he ready to wean from the breast? If yes, help him along. But if he isn’t, consider that social changes, illness, teething, and many other factors discussed earlier can be at play. If, after addressing those potential causes, the nursing strike continues, check with your pediatrician. A clean bill of health is always peace of mind.

But there are times when babies strike for no apparent reason. If you find yourself in that situation, seek out a qualified lactation consultant or contact your local La Leche League group or leader. They’ll have the experience to take a closer look at your baby’s nursing strike.

A nursing strike is a test of patience for all moms. But it happens to many babies. Before quitting on nursing, take these steps into consideration. Also, support for nursing moms is better available than ever was before. Instead of worrying, reach out for the help that is there and readily available from local lactation groups, medical providers, and hospitals. A nursing strike is one experience you do not have to go through alone.

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