How to Deal with Nursing Strikes While Breastfeeding

AngelaRD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 7 minutes

What to know about helping your baby through a nursing strike

  • Common causes of a nursing strikes

  • Learn the difference between a nursing strike and a fussy or distracted eater

  • Tips to help get baby back to breastfeeding

A nursing strike may seem like it happens out of the blue. Things have been going well with breastfeeding, then suddenly *snap*… your baby starts to refuse the breast. Your little one might seem like they want to eat but gets upset when they try to latch, pushing the breast away.

It can be normal to feel upset and frustrated when this happens. It might seem like your little one is rejecting you, but there is often something deeper going on.1

The good news is that a strike like this is usually temporary and your little one will be back to nursing well again soon.

Why is my baby refusing to breastfeed?

While it may seem like baby is ready to wean, that’s not usually the case for a baby under 1 year. Often when your little one refuses the breast, they are trying to tell you that something is not right.

There are many things that may play a role in triggering a nursing strike. And while some babies continue to breastfeed even when they are not feeling well, or get fussier at the breast but still feed, others ‘strike’ – or refuse the breast altogether.2

Common causes of nursing strikes

  • You smell "different" to your baby: Perhaps you changed deodorant, soap, perfume, or lotion.

  • You've been under stress: Perhaps from hosting extra company, traveling, moving, or dealing with a family crisis.

  • Your baby has an illness or injury that makes nursing uncomfortable: Such as an ear infection, a stuffy nose, sore gums from teething, recent vaccination, or thrush.

  • You've recently changed your nursing pattern: If you’ve returned to work, left the baby with a sitter more than usual, or put off nursing for any number of reasons, your baby may not have caught up to the new schedule.

  • Your hormones have changed: This may be from your menstrual cycle returning or you becoming pregnant.

  • Your breastmilk tastes different: Perhaps you started a new medication or diet.

  • Your milk supply has changed: This could be from an over- or under- supply.

  • Your baby has recently started drinking from a bottle or using a pacifier more.

  • You reacted strongly when your baby bit you, or you are arguing or speaking in harsh tones while breastfeeding, which could frighten or startle the baby.3,4,5

Wondering if your little one is going through a nursing strike? Reach out to our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am-6pm (ET). Chat Now!

What age do babies go through nursing strikes?

It turns out that it’s possible for babies to refuse the breast at every age and stage.5

Newborns generally refuse to breastfeed due to difficulty latching or an oversupply of breastmilk. Sometimes this is from mom trying to position baby too roughly or holding the back of baby’s head, which makes baby want to fight back.6

If there is too much milk coming out of the breast, baby may come off coughing, choking, or crying and this can create a negative association with breastfeeding.11

Between the ages of 3 and 12 months, babies often go through a nursing strike in response to big changes they are upset over.12

A baby this age may be triggered to refuse the breast if mother is away for long periods of time (going back to work) or if baby’s routine or environment has been changed (traveling, moving, or has a new caregiver).

Read more: Top Breastfeeding Latching Tips

Is this a true nursing strike, or does it just seem like one?

Often baby may seem like they are refusing the breast, but it may not be a true nursing strike.

For example, newborns bounce their heads back and forth on the breast in search of the nipple. This is called ‘rooting.’ Since this sometimes takes a while, and it may look like baby is shaking their head ‘no’, some moms feel this is a rejection of the breast. But in reality, this is the natural process of your little one learning how to latch.

Between the ages of 4 and 8 months babies become more aware of the world around them.12 They may start pulling off the breast and looking around, perhaps getting caught up in watching and listening. This distracted feeding is a great sign that they are becoming more alert, but does not usually indicate a nursing strike.1

Some babies are generally fussy eaters. They may fuss to latch and take a while to get into the feed, then fuss again once they’re done eating.1 While fussy feeders may appear like they are refusing to breastfeed, they do generally get in full feeds.

And finally, after 1 year toddlers may begin to slowly wean themselves in a natural progression of going to mostly solid foods.13 This often includes refusing specific breastfeeding sessions.

Signs that your baby is not going through a nursing strike:

  • Your little one is making 5+ wet and regular soft bowel movements

  • Seems happy, content, and alert between feedings

  • Baby continues to gain weight well1,7

Learn about:

Is Baby Reacting to Something in your Breastmilk?

Meal Plan for 12 Month Old Toddler

Tips for ending a nursing strike and getting back to breastfeeding

The main priorities when overcoming a nursing strike are to treat or remove the possible cause as well as to get both you and your little one enjoying breastfeeding again.8

Top focuses: 1) Feed the baby and 2) Keep up your supply

You baby’s strike may last for a few feeds or even for a few days. No matter the span of time, feed your baby with a bottle, cup, or spoon until they come around.2,3 Use paced bottle feeding to help the feeding better replicate a breastfeeding session. If possible, use expressed breastmilk in the bottle or cup.

Be sure to pump anytime you would normally be breastfeeding.2,3 This will help keep your breastmilk supply adequate for when baby begins to breastfeed again.

Remember that a nursing strike does not necessarily mean that your baby has started weaning. Baby’s typically do not wean on their own before 12 months of age.12

Read more:

Top Tips for Pumping Breastmilk

Paced Bottle Feeding

Be patient

During the first 12 to 24 hours of a nursing strike, some moms find it helpful to avoid breastfeeding altogether and instead offer breastmilk in a bottle, cup, or other method.8

Rather than force breastfeeding, work on rebuilding your relationship with your little one. Spend lots of calm one-on-one time together.12 This could be going out for a walk, singing, dancing, or even taking a bath.1

If your little one decides to get into a breastfeeding position, take their lead – but don’t offer the breast unless they begin to root or ask to feed.6,8 Do not try to force breastfeeding as this may backfire and result in a longer strike.

Usually these 24 hours help you and your baby to begin feeling less stress and frustration, enjoying each other’s company again. This is a big step toward returning to breastfeeding.

Read about: How Do I Give Baby a Massage?

Skin-to-skin contact

This next step of skin-to-skin helps get you and your baby even closer. Having this close contact can help create a more positive attitude toward the breast again.1,8

However, do not offer the breast unless baby asks to breastfeed. Rather, you and your baby can enjoy cuddle time, nap time, bath time, and play time while also allowing for skin-to-skin contact.

Offer the breast but don’t force it

Once you are both in a more positive, comfortable place, begin gently offering the breast at feedings. If your little one does not seem happy about it, offer a bottle or cup of breastmilk instead.

Try to keep your face serene and relaxed to help your baby feel more confident at the breast.8 Avoid showing any reaction if your little one is not quite ready to breastfeed.

Tips for getting baby back to the breast:

  • Begin to breastfeed while baby is sleepy or asleep

  • Breastfeed while walking or bathing

  • Lie skin-to-skin: Belly to belly. Try this for up to 10 minutes before a feeding, allowing baby just to relax with you to see if they begin to breastfeed on their own.

  • Hand express before a feeding. This way milk is ready to go when baby latches to help prevent further frustrations. You can also try putting a drop of milk on your breast to help entice your baby.

  • Breastfeed in a place that has minimal distractions and is dimly lit3,8

Offer the breast at times when your baby is most calm. Early morning, right before bed, or after a bath are usually mellow times to try nursing. You may also want to try when baby is due to feed but not yet ravenously hungry and impatient.

Try a new breastfeeding position

As your baby grows they may find comfort in a different breastfeeding position.2 Avoid pressing on the back of baby’s head or shaking your breast too much.

Sometimes a baby “strikes” only one breast. Try swapping sides to see if your baby prefers the other side. Be sure to pump the side baby is refusing until they begin to breastfeed there again.

Read more: 6 Breastfeeding Positions for You and Your Baby

Deal with oversupply

If you have an oversupply, it may be important to help your little one deal with the fast-flowing milk (a forceful let-down), so they stop refusing the breast.

You can tell if you have an oversupply if baby pops off the breast coughing or choking, if you are frequently engorged, leak milk between feeds, and if milk sprays out fairly forcefully during the let-down.9 Baby may also spit up after feeds, have more gas than usual, and may have green-foamy stools.9

During the first month or two of life, the body makes milk in response to hormones. Often this results in making too much milk until the body figures out how much milk your baby needs.10

This type of oversupply is normal but may cause latching issues or breast refusal if baby can’t handle the fast flow of milk.

To help with this initial newborn oversupply and strong let-down:

  • Latch baby. Then when you feel the let-down (a tingling feeling that indicates milk is starting to flow), unlatch baby and let the milk spray into a cloth. Re-latch baby once milk has slowed to a drip.

  • Alternatively, hand express or pump until the let-down starts, allow the let-down to spray out, then latch baby.

  • Try laid-back breastfeeding. This position allows gravity to help slow down how fast milk comes out.

  • Reduce pumping sessions. Often pumping too much above and beyond what baby needs on a daily basis will cause an oversupply and forceful let-down.9,10

If your oversupply has continued beyond the initial newborn period, it may be important to meet with a lactation consultant and chat about strategies to help reduce your supply so that it better meets baby’s needs.

Read more:

What is Breastmilk Oversupply and How to Manage It

Managing Leaking While Breastfeeding

Did baby start biting while breastfeeding?

Among other things, biting may be from teething, being distracted, being upset, or being done with the feed.

Try using a calm voice while breastfeeding and avoid fighting or yelling. This will help baby continue to have a positive experience at the breast rather than associating negative feelings with breastfeed.

There are ways to help prevent and reduce biting. Read more here: Biting and Teething during Breastfeeding

Look at changes in baby’s environment

Did you start using any new lotions, perfumes, soaps, or laundry soap? Start a new diet or medication? New caregivers or daycare?

Some of these factors you may not be able to change but knowing the root cause of a nursing strike can help you feel more confident about moving forward to help get baby back to the breast.

Check in with baby’s pediatrician

Since some nursing strikes are due to ear infections, thrush, or other pain, it may be important to chat with baby’s doctor to ensure baby is healthy and doing well. This is especially important if the strike is lasting longer than a few days and baby still seems upset.

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Understanding Your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues