Babies are born to suckle; they expect to breastfeed, and biologically, they need to do so for at least their first year of life. They need to breastfeed to survive, and there is no reason to stop doing so. But there are some babies who suddenly (usually between 8 months and one year of age) stop nursing. Then, they don’t want to even get close to the breast, and they reject it.
For any mother, it’s a terrible feeling when a baby refuses to breastfeed. If you don’t want your baby to give up breastfeeding yet, and the idea of weaning does not appeal to you, then you obviously become anxious. Some then try to put their baby to the breast more often, start to offer the breast more times, and insist on the baby to feed. But being desperate leads to insisting too much and can be counterproductive if you want your baby to start nursing again.
But let’s take it one step at a time. First of all, if your baby refuses the breast at this age, this reaction is considered more like a “pause” than the end of the breastfeeding journey because natural weaning usually happens at around two and a half years of age and never so early. This is why this behavior is also called a nursing strike, and we need to try to find out why the baby has started a strike at this age.
The most common causes why a baby refuses to breastfeed are:
Illness or discomfort of the baby
- Pain in one or both ears: the movement that babies have to make to suckle can be extremely painful, and babies stop breastfeeding to avoid this pain.
- Discomfort in the throat, mouth ulcers, and cold sores: any soreness in the mouth is painful for babies when the breast milk, which is full of antibacterial components, gets onto a wound. Then babies can feel it stinging, which causes them to refuse the breast because they are uncomfortable.
- Blocked nose/cold: when babies suckle at the breast, they breathe at the same time. If they have a blocked nose, they cannot do so and cannot feed easily, which makes them desperate and they may refuse to breastfeed.
Even when these difficulties are already overcome, they can still continue to cause a baby to reject breastfeeding because when they fear pain, they won’t even try to suckle.
Situations related to the mother or the family situation:
- When the mother screams, for example, because of a bite from the baby, often babies react with nursing strikes after a bite if the mother experiences a scare, screams, or makes a bad face. Although it seems impossible, even babies as little as this do notice and react by then avoiding the situation.
- Back to work: separation from the mother due to their return to work or for other reasons can cause babies to stop breastfeeding temporarily. They do so to protest when the mother is back, and then they don’t want to feed at the breast anymore under any circumstances.
- Nipple/teat confusion
Therefore, first of all, it is advisable to visit your pediatrician or healthcare center and have a complete check-up* for your baby to make sure that there is nothing physical that makes breastfeeding difficult. Also, evaluate your situation and think about whether there have been any important changes.
How do I get my baby to breastfeed again?
So, if your baby is on a nursing strike and you are experiencing breast rejection, and you don’t want to end your breastfeeding journey, there are several things you can try.
Remember, never force your baby to breastfeed by making it go hungry; this is not recommended under any circumstances. Continue to offer complementary food and solids if your baby eats them, and offer expressed breastmilk to your baby in some way. But never leave your baby without food because that will not make them come back to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is an option for babies, not an obligation.
You can invite your baby to suckle, but it’s important that your little one comes to the breast because she or he wants to.
Try to focus on two things: closeness to the breast and trying to make your baby laugh.
There are several “seduction techniques”; you can try all of them, choose one, or try which one makes you feel better.
In the bathtub
First, prepare the bath: arrange for soft light, keep the water warm, and maybe some background music (yes, a bit like with a romantic date). Then get into the bathtub with your baby, but not with the intention to breastfeed, but for your baby to “fall in love,” to enjoy, to laugh, to really be delighted with the pleasure of playing with you. And try to make your little one laugh a lot, as much as you can.
A single bath together is usually not enough, so try to repeat this as many times as possible.
Being skin-to-skin with your baby is always a great idea in these situations. And it has to be fun! You can tickle, kiss on the tummy, play hide pick-a-boo, and laugh, all with the same purpose: enjoy yourself and have your baby enjoy being with you.
Many babies laugh so much that they forget about the nursing strike and throw themselves at the breast. But be aware: sometimes they do so for a few seconds, and then they refuse the breast again, so keep playing!
On the sofa
Put your baby skin-to-skin, read your little one stories, or play. Try to create a warm and soft atmosphere like that of the bathtub and resist the temptation to offer your breast.
You have to be very patient and will have to repeat this as many times as you want. Breast refusal situations can be long and require an extra lot of patience; sometimes, they can even last for a month. Therefore, try to persevere.
*There are other reasons why a baby might refuse the breast, for example, if the mother is pregnant again, to the way you have introduced and offered solid food. There is more information in this article.