Why is my baby refusing to latch?

Some babies refuse their mother’s breast for a variety of reasons. The best way to spur your baby’s interest is to stay positive and ensure that she is getting the calories and nutrients she needs while you figure out the cause and come up with a solution. Maintain the special mother-child bond; don’t let every interaction be a feeding struggle.

Some reasons your baby might be refusing to latch on:

  • She hasn’t yet figured out how to breastfeed. While making milk is natural, breastfeeding is a skill that mothers and babies must learn. 
  • She may be uncomfortable in the position you’ve chosen. Make sure that your baby’s head and chest are facing your breast. Keep in mind that your baby may be uncomfortable with a position that she’s accepted before for reasons that you can’t see; for example, an ear infection may make lying on a particular side painful. In this case, switching your baby’s position may help. 
  • She may have a physical reason for refusing the breast. One mother found—after phoning her pediatrician’s office, taking in her baby for an exam, and returning home—that her daughter, who had been refusing to latch for the entire day, had managed to get a small piece of plastic wedged into her gumline. Once the mother realized the problem and removed it, the baby was happy to nurse again! Don’t forget to examine your baby’s mouth thoroughly. 
  • She has “nipple confusion.” Breastfed babies use different feeding and swallowing skills than bottle-fed babies; when breastfeeding babies are given artificial nipples before their breastfeeding skills are fully developed, they may experience nipple confusion
  • She is on a “nursing strike.” 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. Sometimes, the cause can be easily identified; other times, no cause is found. Rarely do nursing strikes lead to weaning.

Some strategies that have helped other mothers to coax their child to latch:

  • Hold your baby skin-to-skin. Skin-to-skin care (also referred to as "kangaroo care") can provide a sense of closeness and wellbeing for both you and your baby. Spend as much quiet time as you can holding your baby, dressed in only a diaper, against your chest. As long as her reflexes are intact, there is a chance she will find her way to your breast and latch on. A reclining position may help. If necessary, drape a blanket over you and your baby. As an added benefit, this close contact will stimulate your body to release prolaction, the milk-producing hormone, and help to maintain your milk supply during your baby’s non-nursing phase. 
  • Tune into your baby’s hunger cues. Offer the breast whenever you see any early sign of hunger. You may want to use some form of co-sleeping as well, since your baby may be more receptive if she is in a light sleep, slightly drowsy, or just barely awake. Don’t wait until your baby cries to feed her; crying is a late sign of hunger and can make it more difficult for her to latch on and feed effectively. 
  • Take a bath with your baby. Many babies who seem unwilling to latch onto the breast do better in a shallow warm water bath. The sensation of water can be soothing and relaxing for both mother and baby. After one or two in-water nursing sessions, your baby may be ready to feed again on “dry land.” Of course, you will want to pay attention to the amount of water you use and avoid bathing with your baby if you are at all sleepy. 
  • Maintain your milk supply. It may help to massage your breast before you try to latch your baby, since this will stimulate let-down and reduce the amount of effort your baby will have to expend before the milk starts to flow. Breast massage also helps to increase milk production. A breast pump may also help you increase your milk supply and entice your baby back to the breast. 
  • Get help from someone skilled at helping breastfeeding mothers. Certain conditions such as flat or inverted nipples can make it harder for a baby to latch. A skilled health care provider, such as an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) or a La Leche League leader can help you identify the best solution for your specific problem.

Stay positive. With ample opportunity to breastfeed, and ample patience on the part of mom, most babies will resume breastfeeding. Depending on your baby’s age, personality, and experience with artificial nipples, it may be several days before she breastfeeds enthusiastically. Be sure that she latches well when she does return to the breast, taking the entire nipple and as much of the areola (the dark part of the breast around the nipple) as possible into her mouth. If she doesn’t latch well, gently slip your finger between her lips and your breast to break the latch, and try again.

Last but not least, be patient. Some babies are champion breastfeeders from the start, while others encounter bumps along the way. Your patience will help your baby navigate the course.

Last updated July 14, 2018

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