A nursing strike is when a baby suddenly refuses to breastfeed, after nursing well for weeks or months. It can last for several feedings, or even several days. Typically, it means that your baby is noticing something different when breastfeeding. Sometimes the cause of a nursing strike can be easily identified. More often, no cause is found.
Common causes include:
- Pain or discomfort. Whether the pain is in the baby’s mouth (such as from teething) or elsewhere (such as from a vaccination or injury), discomfort can cause the baby to become uninterested in breastfeeding.
- Illness. A stuffy nose or a cold can make it hard for your baby to breathe while breastfeeding. Constipation or diarrhea can cause her to lose interest in breastfeeding.
- Strange tastes or odors. Occasionally, menstruation (your monthly period) or something in your diet will change the taste of your milk. Some babies have nursing strikes when their mothers use a new deodorant, perfume, or lotion.
- Distractions. Overstimulation from a busy environment may distract your baby from breastfeeding.
Whatever the cause, remember that a nursing strike doesn’t mean your baby is ready to wean. She will typically resume breastfeeding within a few days.
You will want to maintain your milk supply and continue to nourish your baby during this time. To keep up your milk supply and avoid the discomfort of engorgement, hand express or pump.
The following strategies will help you maintain your baby’s usual feeding routine:
- Continue to offer the breast. Try expressing a few drops of milk onto your nipple or your baby’s mouth as encouragement. Do not try to force her onto the breast. Stop if she seems frustrated. Give her your expressed milk by teaspoon, eye dropper, hollow-handled medicine spoon, or cup until she resumes breastfeeding.
- Avoid giving any more bottles than necessary. Bottles can be introduced after breastfeeding is well established—about six weeks after birth. However, babies use different techniques for sucking at the breast versus from a bottle and you’ll want to nurture breastfeeding skills during a nursing strike.
- Offer the breast when your baby is hungry or sleepy. Watch for early signs of hunger and offer the breast at those times, before providing any other foods. If your baby is relaxed or sleepy, she may be more apt to latch on and breastfeed.
- Change positions. If your baby is congested, try a more upright position. If she has had vaccinations, try to avoid contact with any sore spots. Similarly, if teething is the problem, rub her gums with a clean finger or clean, cool washcloth before feeding.
- Avoid distractions. Limit noise and other distractions during feedings. A quiet, dimly lit room might help.
- Soothe your baby. Give your baby your undivided attention. Hold her and cuddle her before attempting to breastfeed. Use gentle stroking, a soothing voice, and skin-to-skin contact.
The most important strategy of all is to be patient and relax. Nursing strikes seldom lead to weaning. As long as your child is taking in nutrients (by cup, spoon, or otherwise), peeing and pooping as usual, shows no signs of illness, and is otherwise happy, you need not worry.
Signs that you should contact your baby's doctor include:
- Refusing to feed, no matter how you give the milk
- Fewer wet or poopy diapers
- Other signs of dehydration, such as lack of tears during crying, dry mouth, sunken fontanelles (the soft spots between the bones of the skull)
- Weight loss
- Listlessness, change in temperament or other signs that concern you
If you notice any of these symptoms, consult your baby's health care provider to schedule a sick child visit or for additional guidance.