How to Get Through A Nursing Strike
What to do when your little one temporarily
refuses to breastfeed.
By Wendy Wisner, IBCLC
Scenario 1: Your eight-month-old seems to be
teething. He bit you while nursing and you screamed at the top of your
lungs (ouch!). Now your baby cries when he comes to your breast, and
refuses to nurse.
Scenario 2: Your four-month-old had a cold last
week and was too stuffed up to nurse. Then you had a busy week – lots of
plans out of the house – and your baby wouldn’t sit still to nurse while
you were out. Today she arches away from the breast every time you sit
down to nurse. You were already stressed out and now your stress is
Scenario 3: Your fourteen-month-old seems too
busy to nurse lately. He’ll sit on your lap, latch for a second, and
then run off laughing. He would rather eat snacks or drink water from a
sippy cup. Last night you were staying at your in-laws’, and he was
restless and pulling off the breast even while nursing to sleep. Today
he’s flatly refusing the breast altogether and you are concerned he’s
Sound familiar? These are just some examples of what might happen if
your baby is experiencing a nursing strike.
First, how do you distinguish a nursing strike from weaning? Basically,
any baby or toddler who suddenly refuses the breast is having a strike.
It doesn’t really matter how old your baby is. Certainly, any child
under two years won’t just stop nursing suddenly without due cause. Even
older toddlers can have nursing strikes. Natural weaning – even if it is
pushed along a bit by a mom – happens very gradually, the child dropping
nursing sessions one by one, over many weeks or months. So, when in
doubt, assume your baby or toddler is having a nursing strike.
The first thing to know is that almost all nursing strikes resolve in
time. Babies actually want to nurse, but something is upsetting them
when they strike and, once this is resolved or forgotten, nursing will
resume. In order to get through the strike, you need some faith, good
support, and lots of patience. It can sometimes take a few days (or even
weeks, in some cases) to resolve completely.
Even though it might take a bit of detective work, almost all nursing
strikes begin with some kind of stressor that make nursing unhappy for
your baby. The most common ones are illness, teething, developmental
changes (both mental and physical), changes in routine (moving, busy
family life), biting (especially if the mother reacts by screaming, and
startling the baby), and high-stress situations in the family.
it’s a little more subtle than these situations, and often is a
combination of things that push things over the edge for your baby, and
result in a strike.
Remember that something is bothering your baby; it is nothing you did
wrong. Even if you screamed while being bitten, or were “too busy” or
“too stressed,” there is no reason for guilt here. These things happen
in our lives. Like I said before, nursing strikes almost always work
themselves out in due time.
So what to do once you have identified it as a nursing strike?
First, it’s important to protect your milk supply and feed your baby.
Some babies will refuse the breast completely; others will still nurse
for some sessions, but refuse the others. Unless you are dealing with an
older toddler, you will need to pump or hand express in order to keep up
your milk supply. Your baby needs to be fed the pumped milk to get
It’s preferable to feed your baby with non-bottle nipples (you can try a
small cup or a spoon). If that isn’t possible, and your baby will only
take a bottle, try paced bottle feeding (see the link at the end of the
article from kellymom.com for help) to make bottle feeding most
compatible with breastfeeding. If your baby uses a pacifier, see if you
can use it less, or not at all – some babies will come back to the
breast by first using it to pacify, so you don’t want to rely on
artificial nipples right now.
Babies who are refusing the breast have a memory of something that
happened during breastfeeding that upset them, and you want them to move
past this memory. So now isn’t the time to force the breast. Definitely
continue offering it – but if your baby cries when you do, this may not
be the best strategy.
When your baby gets upset at the sight of your breast, a good strategy
is to offer the breast when the baby is less aware of what is happening.
My favorite time to do so is just when a baby is waking up from sleep
because the baby is in a semi-conscious state then. You can also offer
the breast in the middle of a sleep cycle, when the baby stirs. If you
don’t already share sleep with your baby, now is a good time to do so,
even if it’s just a temporary thing. Sleep without a shirt so your baby
will smell you – he or she might latch on without your even knowing.
Lots of skin-to-skin usually helps. You can just hold your baby against
your breast periodically without offering, without trying to “make
things happen.” You want to remind your baby that the breast is a safe,
cozy place. A weekend napping in bed together, skin-to-skin, often cures
a nursing strike.
Other tricks include nursing in the dark, nursing in a baby carrier,
nursing in the bathtub, or nursing outside. Just changing up the nursing
routine can be helpful so that your baby can forget whatever caused the
I highly recommend you talk to a breastfeeding counselor, or an
understanding friend. When a baby refuses your breast, it can cause a
whole lot of stress for you, and being able to talk it through can be
immensely helpful. Often your baby will pick up on the relief in your
body, and begin to relax as well, which will help end the strike.
So have faith, take your time, go back to basics, and get tons of
support. I know how devastating it is when your baby refuses the breast.
It’s hard not to take it as a personal rejection. But it will be OK.
It’s just a nursing strike, and will be over soon.
Wendy Wisner is a writer, board certified lactation
consultant (IBCLC), and mother. She is the author of two books of
poetry, and her poems, book reviews, and articles have appeared widely.
She also writes a blog about breastfeeding at