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Q&A: Nursing strike?

What is a nursing strike? How should I handle it?

Re: What is a nursing strike? How should I handle it?

The Bump Expert

A nursing strike is when a breastfeeding baby suddenly stops taking the breast and may even become upset when it's offered. If this is happening to you, the important thing to recognize is that this is not the same thing as a baby choosing to wean. Weaning is a gradual process that generally occurs when babies are much older and when baby is content to nurse during the times that he is, in fact, nursing.

Nursing strikes are sudden, and baby is generally very unhappy; she wants to feed at the breast, but then becomes very upset and refuses to nurse when it is offered. There can be many causes of nursing strikes. Often, we never find out why a particular baby is going through this. Sometimes it happens after baby is startled or frightened by a loud noise while breastfeeding; sometimes it can happen if baby experienced pain during a feeding from an ear infection or teething. It's often quite difficult to pin down.

Even if you don't know what triggered the nursing strike, there are some strategies for overcoming it. Most nursing strikes only last a short time -- from a few hours to a few days. The best thing to do during this time is to offer your baby lots of comfort and snuggle time with you. Spend as much time skin-to-skin (with your shirt off and baby just in a diaper) as possible, but don’t push baby to feed during this time. Make it a relaxing and enjoyable time at the breast with no pressure at all for baby to latch on. If baby does show signs of wanting to nurse, go slowly and let it be on her terms. Never try to push it.

In the meantime be sure to feed your baby your expressed milk by whatever method (bottle, cup, etc.) is most comfortable, and continue to drain your breasts by pumping or manual expression during this time to protect your milk supply. It is NOT true that if your baby gets 'hungry enough' she'll take your breast. An overly hungry, frustrated baby is only going to be more miserable and upset at the breast. The fact is, your baby is more likely to return to nursing when she is comfortable and just a little hungry.

One strategy that often works well is offering your breast while your baby is sleeping. Often a sleeping baby's reflexes take over and she will latch and suck. Some babies will actually take a full feeding while asleep. Some will wake up and continue to nurse. Some will wake up and then refuse the breast again, but that's okay -- gentle persistence is the key, along with taking it slowly and gently, at baby’s pace.

Jeanne Cygnus, IBCLC, RLC