‘My baby was doing very well at the breast – now, suddenly, he’s refused to nurse for the past eight hours. Could something be wrong with my milk?’
Something is probably wrong – though not necessarily with your milk. Temporary rejection of the breast, also called a nursing strike (even in nonunion babies), is not unusual and almost always has a specific cause, the most common of which are:
- Mother’s diet: Have you been indulging in pasta al pesto or another dish redolent with garlic? Feasting your chops and chopsticks on stir-fried chicken? Honoring Saint Patrick with corned beef and cabbage? If so, your baby may simply be protesting the spicy and/or strong flavors your diet is imparting to his milk. If you figure out what turns your baby off, avoid eating it until after you’ve weaned him. Many babies, on the other hands, don’t mind the strong spices in their mother’s milk, especially if they became accustomed to those flavors in utero through highly seasoned amniotic fluid; some especially relish the taste of spicy breast milk.
- A cold. Babies who can’t breathe through stuffy noses can’t nurse and breathe through their mouths at the same time; understandably, they opt for breathing. Gently suction baby’s nostrils with an infant nasal aspirator, or ask your baby’s doctor about nose drops.
- Teething. Though most babies don’t begin the struggle with teeth until at least five or six months, a few begin teething much earlier, and a very occasional baby actually sprouts a tooth or two in the first four months. Nursing often puts pressure on swollen gums, making sucking painful. When budding teeth are the cause of breast rejection, a baby usually starts nursing eagerly, only to pull away in pain.
- An earache. Because ear pain can radiate to the jaw, the sucking motions of nursing can make discomfort worse.
- Thrush. If your baby has this fungal infection in his mouth, nursing may be painful. Be sure the condition is treated so that the infection isn’t passed on to you through cracked nipples, or spread elsewhere on the baby.
- Slow let-down. A very hungry baby may grow impatient when milk doesn’t flow immediately (in some women let-down may take as long as five minutes to occur), and may push away the nipple in a fury before let-down begins. To avoid this problem, express a little milk before you pick him up, so that he’ll get something for his efforts to moment he starts to suck.
- A hormonal change in you. A new pregnancy (unlikely now if you’re nursing exclusively, more possible if you’ve started your baby on supplement formula feedings) can produce hormones that change the taste of the breast milk, causing baby to reject the breast. So can the return of menstruation, which again isn’t usually an issue until partial weaning begins.
- Tension in you. Maybe you’re stressed because you’ve recently returned to work. Maybe it’s because it’s bill-paying time, or because the dishwasher just broke – again. Maybe it’s just because you’ve had a really bad day. Whatever the reason, if you’re worried or upset you may be communicating your tension to your baby, making him too agitated to nurse. Try to relax yourself before offering the breast.
- Readiness for weaning. This couldn’t be the case yet – though in a baby approaching his first birthday, breast rejection might be his way of saying, ‘mummy, I’ve had it with nursing. I’m ready to move on.’ Ironically, babies seen to do this when their mothers are not the least bit interested in weaning, rather than when mum’s ready to quit nursing.
Once in a while, there appears to be no obvious explanation for a baby’s turning down the breast. Like an adult, a baby can be ‘off his feed’ for a meal or two. Fortunately, this kind of hiatus is usually temporary. In the meantime, these suggestions may help you ride out the nursing strike:
- Don’t try substitutes. Offering a bottle of formula when your baby balks at the breast could exacerbate the problem by decreasing your milk supply. Most nursing strikes, even ‘long-term’ ones, last only a day or two.
- Try some breast in a bottle. Express some milk and give it to your baby in a bottle if he continuously rejects the breast (though this won’t work if it’s something in the milk that’s bothering him). Again, the strike’s likely to last only for a day or two, after which your baby will be ready to take milk form the source again.
- Try, try again, Even if he rejects it for a few feedings, chances are he’ll surprise you and start right back where he left out.
- Slow down on solids. If you’ve started your baby on solid food, he may be eating too much, curbing his appetite for beast milk. At this age, breast milk is still more important than any solids, so cut down on the amount of solids you’re feeding and always offer the breast first.
If rejection of nursing continues or if it occurs in connection with other signs of illness, speak to his doctor.