Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Cathy Heinz, Virginia Beach VA, USA
Photo: Louise and Robyn, Denise Burrows Photography
When a baby goes on a “nursing strike” and refuses to breastfeed …
I always planned on breastfeeding. My mother had breastfed all five of her babies. She had told me about the difficulties she’d encountered. I knew it was natural, but I knew it might not be easy.
After a five-year struggle with infertility and IVF, a difficult induced labor, a cesarean section, a sleepy baby, oversupply issues, a hospitalization and one bout of mastitis, I felt as though Dallas and I had been through almost every barrier to breastfeeding possible by the time he was two months.
We were, however, still breastfeeding when Dallas was eight months old. My husband was on military deployment when my baby started to refuse the breast. It was only once or twice a day at first but after a few weeks he completely refused to breastfeed during the day. I started waking him up every two hours in the night to feed just to get enough milk into him. I fed him more solid foods during the day and gave him diluted juice to make sure he wasn’t dehydrated. I searched online and in books for an answer.
A month later things weren’t getting any better. I called the lactation consultant at the hospital. She couldn’t think of a thing to help me and suggested Dallas was trying to wean himself and I should switch him to formula. She said I should be proud of myself for making it so far. But my goal had been a year, plus time for a gradual weaning. I thought anything less was a failure on my part. I hung up the phone in tears. I called two more lactation consultants who gave me the same answer.
I talked with each of my parents about it. My dad said nine months was good and I should be proud. My mother didn’t know what to say. My husband said he would support me no matter what I chose to do. I felt I was letting Dallas and myself down by not continuing. And I really didn’t want to buy formula. Finally I decided to give La Leche League a try. My mother said that she had turned to LLL for help herself and she wouldn’t have made it through without them.
I contacted the Leader of a local LLL group and she immediately gave me the following information.
What causes a “nursing strike”?
- Change or stress in the home,
- arguments with family members,
- feeding solids before breast milk,
- screaming when being bitten.
All these can be reasons that a baby might stop breastfeeding.
We went down the list. My husband had already been gone for months so we were used to the deployment. I was feeding solids before offering the breast but since Dallas wasn’t nursing during the day I didn’t think that was the cause. Dallas was biting me, but when I screamed he would giggle and bite again. It didn’t seem to scare him at all.
The Leader, Susan, asked to call me back so we could talk a little bit more and while waiting for her call I started to think. Every time I nursed my son, my cat would start to meow loudly. Dallas had never so much as turned to the sound for the first six months, but he had recently been distracted from nursing to look at the cat. This drove me crazy so I would yell at the cat to stop. Could the yelling or the meowing have caused Dallas to stop nursing? Susan agreed it was possible. She also made some suggestions about how I might deal with the biting.
I started shutting the cat in the bathroom while I nursed my son. Slowly Dallas returned to nursing during the day. He needed complete calm. I walked silently up and down while nursing him for the first few days. By two weeks we were almost back to normal. Then, one day, I left the cat out and he started to meow. Dallas tensed up his entire body and stopped sucking. I started to breathe in for a yell, but stopped myself. After a moment or two Dallas relaxed again and happily carried on nursing.
A few weeks later Dallas got an intestinal virus and was unwilling to eat anything but breast milk for three weeks. I don’t know what I would have done if I had stopped nursing him before he caught the virus. I will always be grateful to La Leche League and Susan for their help. I definitely learned that when you feel something is important you can overcome just about anything.
Nursing strikes happen for many reasons. They are almost always a temporary reaction to an external factor, although sometimes their cause is never determined.
Nursing strike triggers
Here are some of the most common triggers of a nursing strike:
- You’ve changed your deodorant, soap, perfume, lotion, etc and you smell “different” to your baby.
- You’ve been under stress (such as having extra company, traveling, moving, dealing with a family crisis).
- Your baby or toddler has an illness or injury that makes nursing uncomfortable (an ear infection, a stuffy nose, thrush, a cut in the mouth).
- Your baby has sore gums from teething.
- You’ve recently changed your nursing patterns (started a new job, left your baby with a sitter more than usual, put off nursing because of being busy, etc).
- You reacted strongly when your baby bit you and he was frightened.
What you can do: some time-honored approaches from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding
- “Nurse the baby in his sleep. This is probably the most commonly helpful suggestion.
- Sing or rock your baby with your shirt open and see if he’ll relax enough to latch.
- Nurse somewhere different—while walking around, while sitting in the car, at a friend’s house, outside, or in a warm bath together.
- Offer in a whole new position—have him sitting facing you, for instance, or put him up against your shoulder and slide him down into a vertical position.
- Do a dance or baby bounce—starting small but getting bouncier—while holding him in a nursing position. (Stop if he doesn’t like it.)….” Pages 408–409.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding 8th revised edition, Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International, 2010 for more suggestions.