A nursing strike is when baby abruptly starts refusing the breast. Babies very, very rarely wean themselves entirely from breastfeeding before 18-24 months. If your baby has stopped nursing all of a sudden, don't assume they are done with the breast. They are probably just on strike! It means something is wrong for your sweet babe and it is your job as their mama to figure out what that problem is and fix it. It is incredibly frustrating, but with a little patience and determination (ok, a freaking lot of patience and determination!) baby will come back to the breast.
Refusing the breast can be due to a whole host of factors such as :
- illness, especially if a stuffy nose makes it hard for baby to breathe,
- pain (from something like teething, an ear infection, reflux),
- reaction to vaccines (which could also be localized pain or headaches),
- hospitalization of mom or baby,
- excessive stress to mama (you are having a hard time at work, your in-laws are in town, you got in a fight with your partner - baby can sense your mood!),
- excessive stress to baby (over-stimulation from nursing in public, being held in an uncomfortable position, not knowing how to latch on properly),
- being scared (from a loud noise, interaction with a pet, mama yelling after being bitten, etc),
- a drastic change in a solid nursing schedule,
- a change in the flavor of your breastmilk (if you have eaten something that makes your milk taste unpleasant to baby or started taking some medications),
- a change in your lotion, perfume or soap that makes you smell different to baby,
- not enough milk (reduced supply or a letdown that is too slow after baby latches on)
- too much milk (engorgement or too heavy flow that results in baby coughing and sputtering)
It usually only lasts a few days, but can last up to a few weeks, or very rarely a few months.
It is very important not to force baby back to the breast!!! Baby is having a hard time; nursing is about comfort. They need to be comforted and coaxed back gently. The breast should always stay a safe place.
There are three main steps in resolving a nursing strike:
- Feed your baby.
- There are a few options here for what to feed baby and how to feed baby. The best choice is always mother's milk freshly expressed, though this can be unrealistic. The next best choice is mother's milk in general. Then donated milk from another mama. Then formula. It doesn't matter what combination of these options baby gets, but make sure baby is getting food! Baby will come back to the breast more easily if they are happy and the problem has been solved, not if they are starved.
- Baby can be fed by bottle, by cup, by spoon, by a supplemental nursing system (SNS), a finger feeder or any combination of the above.
- Pump or hand express your milk as often as you would feed your baby. Milk supply is all about demand. Stop the demand and you lose the supply. Lose the supply and baby has nothing to come back to.
- Offer baby the breast often. If they refuse, that's ok. Don't push it. Just let baby know it's still there.
- Skin-to-skin as often as possible. This lets baby smell your scent and reminds baby how wonderful you are and how safe they feel with you.
- Wear your baby, preferably wearing little clothing so there is as much skin-to-skin as possible.
- Sleep near or with your baby, preferably with as much skin-to-skin as possible.
- Try a baby-mama honeymoon. Go back to the very beginning when you and baby were just getting to know each other. Spend all day in bed with baby, shirtless, constantly offering baby the breast. Take a bath with baby and let baby just hang out on your chest. You might find baby suckles a little, even if they're not really nursing. This is good! They are getting reacquainted with your breast! Let it happen!
- Try nursing when baby is very sleepy, such as at night, right before falling asleep or just after waking up.
- Try nursing in a distraction-free environment and in a position where baby feels very stable such as laying down.
- Relax. Try mediation or breathing exercises, taking a walk (wearing baby!), doing some yoga, drinking a cup of chamomile tea, taking a bath. Reduce your stress and baby's stress level will come down, too.
- Temporarily eliminate foods you might think are making baby upset (either stomach-wise or due to taste).
- Help tempt baby with a little milk. If you're using a nipple shield, fill the tip with milk before hand. Stimulate your breast so letdown happens before baby latches on, leaking milk onto baby's mouth. Cover the nipple with milk. Squeeze milk onto the breast through a syringe while getting baby to latch on. Use an SNS or finger feeder.
- If baby is teething, try rubbing baby's gums or letting them gnaw on a chew toy or something frozen just before nursing to ease the pain.
Usually comfort nursing comes back first, either during sleep or sleepy moments; then just suckling; then occasional low-key nursing sessions; and then finally full-time resuming nursing as it was before the strike.
This is one of the hardest moments a mother can experience - literally being refused by your baby. Don't give up! Don't take it personally! Baby still loves you, I promise! When baby finally does come back to the breast, you will appreciate the connection you have with your little one so much more.