What is a nursing strike?
If a baby who has been quite happily breastfeeding suddenly starts to refuse the breast it could be a “nursing strike”. Sometimes this can be mistaken for the baby wanting to stop breastfeeding, but a baby who is ready to wean usually does so over a period of time. In nursing strikes the baby seems unwilling to feed even though he appears really unhappy about it.
Something happens which makes him not want to feed and it can take time and patience to help him return to the breast. Nursing strikes are nearly always a temporary reaction to something which
has happened and the cause may never be discovered.1
What might cause a nursing strike?
The term nursing strike relates to an older baby who suddenly refuses to feed. If you have a newborn baby who is not feeding, please refer to the end of the article for relevant information.
Sometimes the cause is physical:
- The baby might have a stuffy nose or earache which is making feeding uncomfortable.
- He might have a sore throat or mouth. Some mothers have found a little injury such as a cut in their baby’s mouth or an ulcer which hadn’t been noticed.
- Hand, foot and mouth disease or chickenpox can cause a nursing strike as it is so uncomfortable to feed.
- He could have sore gums from teething, a thrush infection or even a urinary tract infection.
- He may be uncomfortable from a vaccination.
- He might be frustrated at a low milk supply or a change in milk taste due to something the mother has ingested. An oversupply of milk could also sometimes scare a baby who finds the flow overwhelming.
Sometimes the cause is emotional:
- A common cause of a sudden nursing strike is the baby being startled in some way while nursing, perhaps by a loud noise or by a mother involuntarily exclaiming when the baby bites.
- A mother may have been feeling stressed because of moving house, having visitors, travelling or dealing with a family crisis and put off nursing and the baby senses her distraction.
- A mother has changed her deodorant, soap, body lotion or perfume and so smells “different” to her baby.
- A new job may have meant a change in nursing habits or the baby being left with another carer for longer periods of time. Attempts to regulate nursing or offering too many bottles or dummies could also contribute to a baby refusing to breastfeed.
What can help end a nursing strike?
- If illness or injury might be the cause, then consulting a doctor about medication could be useful.
- Some babies will nurse, sometimes reluctantly, at night. Trying to nurse the baby in his sleep or when he is sleepy can work: it keeps him fed and helps with your milk supply.
- Trying to force him to feed won’t work and a baby will often get upset if a mother tries. Although it’s hard, being relaxed and offering cuddles and skin-to-skin contact helps keep you feeling close.
- Sing or rock the baby with your shirt open so perhaps he will relax and instinctively latch on. Sitting in a quiet room with dimmed lights and no distractions may help and so can taking a bath together.
- If you can get help with household chores and other children it means you can spend more time just relaxing with the baby.
- Try nursing somewhere different, while walking around, using a baby sling, sitting in the car, outside or at a friend’s house. You can also try a completely different position such as facing you or vertical. Some mothers have tried facing away from a room so that the baby can see what is happening while nursing.
- Rocking, dancing or doing the “baby bounce” (starting small but getting bouncier and bouncier) while holding him in a nursing position might help. Some babies love this, others don’t.
- Stimulate your let-down and get your milk flowing before offering the breast so the baby gets an immediate reward. You can also offer the baby something else to suck before offering to nurse so he is in “sucking” mode!
- If the baby continues to get upset when offered the breast it is sometimes necessary to stop offering for a day or two and let things settle down. You can then make it clear that your breast is available without forcing the issue. See the section below on milk supply for suggestions on preventing a drop in your milk production.
- If a baby has a sore mouth, some mothers have found offering breastmilk ice lollies before a feed can help to numb the mouth and make nursing more comfortable. Expressed breastmilk can also be frozen in cubes and offered in a clean cloth/muslin to suck on. This can be useful for a teething baby. Other mothers have offered a child analgesic as appropriate before trying to nurse.
- Sometimes these ideas will need to be repeated for a few days before things get back to normal.
Here are a couple of unusual ideas to try
- One solution that has worked for some mothers is to sit on an office chair, holding the baby in your lap but not at your breast. Ask someone to spin the chair around; not too fast but until you feel a little dizzy, and then offer the breast. It seems that being a little disorientated stimulates a natural instinct to go to the breast.
- Something which has also worked is for the mother to pretend to nurse a doll or cuddly toy, causing the baby to want his comfort back from the intruder!
What about my milk supply during a strike?
It’s natural to want to give the baby lots of other food and drink while he isn’t nursing. As as long as he is healthy, continue to offer his usual food and water but don’t rush to replace all his nursing needs with extra food immediately.
Pumping or hand-expressing will maintain your milk supply and help prevent you from getting uncomfortably full, which might lead to plugged ducts or mastitis.
If the nursing strike continues for more than a day you can offer expressed milk in a cup, eye-dropper, feeding syringe or spoon. It is best to avoid bottles as they can cause nipple confusion.
Nursing strikes are distressing for mother and baby
It can be really upsetting and frightening to have a baby who has suddenly lost his main food source, his biggest comfort and a lovely way to fall asleep. You want to comfort him but he turns away. It can help to realise that he isn’t rejecting you. He doesn’t understand why breastfeeding is uncomfortable, he just thinks it is causing his discomfort and he is scared to try it again, even if the original problem is sorted out.
Almost all nursing strikes are temporary and end happily, although not necessarily quickly. Some mothers have reported nursing strikes that lasted almost three weeks, but more often the baby goes back to breastfeeding in a few days.
Even if the baby doesn’t immediately return to the breast you can continue to offer for as long as you want to. If it really does turn out to be one of the rare times when it is the end of breastfeeding, allow yourself to be sad and grieve for its sudden ending. Breastfeeding ideally continues until both the mother and baby are ready to stop, but sometimes the baby makes the decision for you both in spite of a mother’s efforts.
Note: If you have a newborn baby who is refusing to feed this is not a nursing strike.
See these posts for help or get support from an LLL Leader:
My Baby Won’t Breastfeed
Sleepy Baby: Why and What To Do
Is My Baby Getting Enough Milk?
Written by Anna Burbidge for LLLGB, 2017
1 The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding 8th Edition, pages 407-409.
Filed Under: Common ConcernsTagged With: nursing strike, unhappy baby
Weaning your child from breastfeeding
- Breastfeeding as long as you can is the best thing for your baby.
- As you introduce your baby to new foods, you can continue to breastfeed.
- It’s easiest for you and your baby if weaning is gradual.
- The right complementary food will depend on your baby’s age when you start to wean.
Weaning is a natural stage in your baby’s development. It is the gradual process of giving your baby other foods while continuing to breastfeed.
Weaning can come with a lot of mixed emotions. You may feel excited at the new independence you and you baby can both enjoy, as well as some sadness as your baby moves to another stage in her life. This is completely normal.
Breastfeeding as long as you can is the best thing for your baby. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. You can continue to breastfeed until your child is 2 years of age and beyond.
When should I wean my baby?
At about 6 months, your baby will be ready for other foods. He will also need other foods to meet his growing nutritional needs. As you introduce your baby to new foods, you can continue to breastfeed.
You’ll know baby is ready to start other foods when he:
- Seems hungry earlier than usual.
- Can sit up without support, and has good control of his neck muscles.
- Holds food in his mouth without pushing it out on his tongue right away.
- Shows interest in food when others are eating.
- Opens his mouth when he sees food coming his way.
- Can let you know he doesn’t want food by leaning back or turning his head away.
Weaning can be either natural (child-led) or planned (mother-led).
Natural weaning or “child-led weaning” happens when your baby starts to accept more—and different types—of solid foods while still breastfeeding on demand. With this type of weaning, you watch your baby’s cues and wean at her pace. Babies who are weaned naturally usually stop breastfeeding completely sometime between 2 and 4 years of age.
Planned weaning or “mother-led weaning” happens when mothers decide to start the weaning process.
A “partial wean” means substituting one or more feedings with a cup or bottle and breastfeeding at other times. This can work well if you are going back to work or school, but still want to breastfeed. Early morning, evening and night feedings can continue even if you are separated from your baby during the day.
How do I wean my baby?
Your weaning experience is up to you and your baby. Try to follow your baby’s cues whenever possible. If you feel your baby is not taking what you think is enough other foods or liquids, see your doctor.
When you and your baby are ready to wean, there are few things that can help make the experience a more positive one for both of you:
- It’s easiest for you and your baby if weaning is gradual – over several weeks, months or even longer. A sudden, abrupt wean should only be considered in extreme circumstances such as maternal illness.
- Start by substituting one feed. When one feed is going well, substitute another feed, and so on.
- Continue this way, substituting one feed at a time. The pace is up to you and your baby, but in general, the slower the better.
- Someone else, such as your baby’s father, may need to offer a feed for your baby to accept it. You can start with a liquid (such as expressed breast milk) in a bottle or cup or a complementary food after about 6 months of age.
- Follow your baby’s cues. She’ll tell you when she’s had enough.
- Hold and cuddle your baby if you are feeding from a bottle. This extra closeness will help both of you during the weaning process. Never prop a bottle. Bottle propping can put your baby at risk for choking and causes early childhood caries.
- Watch the cues you give to your baby. If you sit in the same chair you usually use when you’re nursing, he’ll likely want to breastfeed.
Can’t I just stop breastfeeding?
If possible, avoid an abrupt wean, which can be uncomfortable for you and upsetting for your baby.
- If you have to take a medication, talk to your doctor. There are very few medications that require you have to stop breastfeeding.
- If you are very sick, or if you and your baby have to be separated or a long time, try some of the suggestions for caring for your breasts described below. If your breasts get uncomfortable, express your milk to avoid blocked ducts, mastitis or a breast abscess.
- Babies who are sick should NOT be abruptly weaned. You can pump and store breast milk until your baby can take it again.
What complementary foods can I give my baby?
At about 6 months, you’ll start to introduce solid foods into your baby’s diet. When this happens, your baby will begin to take less breast milk.
Introduce solids one at a time and in small amounts at the beginning. Some babies get very constipated if they are given too much solid food early on.
You can also offer your baby small amounts of water once or twice a day, usually after 6 months of age. It’s best not to offer juice at this age. Too much juice can lead to dental caries, obesity or even poor weight gain and diarrhea.
If you give your baby water, or alternate milks, offer it in a cup instead of a bottle. Breastfed babies easily learn to drink from a cup as early as 6 months of age. You can also try this with expressed breast milk.
|6 to 12 months|
|12 to 18 months|
|18 to 24 months|
|2 to 5 years|
After 12 months of age, your baby should not take more than 16 to 24 ounces (500 mL to 720 mL) of milk per day. Otherwise, she’ll fill up and won’t want to eat solid foods. Also, she may develop iron deficiency anemia. If your baby has a milk allergy, talk to your doctor about what to use for substitute feedings.
For complete information on introducing solids into your baby’s diet, read our information on Feeding your baby in the first year.
My baby is refusing the breast. Does that mean he’s ready to wean?
No, it doesn’t necessarily mean your baby is ready to wean. Sometimes babies go on a “nursing strike” and suddenly refuse to breastfeed. There can be many causes, such as teething, an ear infection or other illness, the onset of your period, a change in your diet, soap, or even deodorant.
Here are some tips to encourage your baby to start breastfeeding again:
- Make feeding time special and quiet; try to limit distractions. Sometimes, as babies get older, they are more interested in looking at the things happening around them then focusing on nursing.
- Cuddle and soothe your baby as much as possible.
- Offer your breast when your baby is very sleepy or just waking up.
- If possible, try using different nursing positions, alternate sides, or nurse in different rooms.
- If you can’t figure out the reason for your baby’s nursing strike, see your doctor or talk to a lactation consultant. Don’t get frustrated or angry. Remember that a nursing strike does not mean your baby is rejecting you.
If this happens, be sure to pump your milk so you don’t develop a blocked duct and that you continue to produce enough breast milk for when your baby is ready to nurse again.
How should I care for my breasts when I start to wean?
- If your breasts are uncomfortable while weaning, try expressing some milk. Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen might help. Cold compresses or gel packs applied to your breasts can also be of some comfort.
- Don’t bind your breasts or drink fewer fluids while you’re weaning.
- Check your breasts regularly to make sure you aren’t developing a blocked duct. A block duct will feel like a firm, tender area (the size of a pea) of the breast. Sometimes you can clear it with gentle rubbing or by putting a little bit of pressure on the area. If it’s painful, see your doctor or lactation consultant. This is more likely to occur during an abrupt wean.
What is mastitis?
Mastitis is an infection that causes breast pain, swelling, warmth and redness on your breast. It can also cause fever and chills. If you have these symptoms, call your doctor. Your doctor will most likely prescribe an antibiotic to clear up the infection.
You can continue breastfeeding if you have mastitis.
Where can I get more information?
You probably have many questions about breastfeeding and your baby’s nutrition. There are many sources of information, including your paediatrician, family doctor, a community health nurse, breastfeeding clinic, lactation consultant and La Leche League.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Community Paediatrics Committee
- Public Education Advisory Committee
Last Updated: April 2013