My Baby Is Suddenly Refusing to Nurse. Does That Mean It's Time to Wean?
A baby who is truly ready to wean will almost always do so gradually, over a period of weeks or months. If your baby or toddler has been breastfeeding well and suddenly refuses to nurse, it is probably what is called a "nursing strike" rather than a signal that it's time to wean. Nursing strikes can be frightening and upsetting to both you and your baby, but they are almost always temporary. Most nursing strikes are over, with the baby back to breastfeeding, within two to four days. (If your baby is a newborn please see our FAQ on Getting a Newborn Back to the Breast)
Nursing strikes happen for many reasons. They are almost always a temporary reaction to an external factor, although sometimes their cause is never determined. Here are some of the most common triggers of nursing strikes:
- You've changed your deodorant, soap, perfume, lotion, etc. and you smell "different" to your baby.
- You've been under stress (such as having extra company, traveling, moving, dealing with a family crisis).
- Your baby or toddler has an illness or injury that makes nursing uncomfortable (an ear infection, a stuffy nose, thrush, a cut in the mouth).
- Your baby has sore gums from teething.
- You've recently changed your nursing patterns (started a new job, left the baby with a sitter more than usual, put off nursing because of being busy, etc.).
- You reacted strongly when your baby bit you, and the baby was frightened.
Getting over the nursing strike and getting your baby back to the breast takes patience and persistence. Get medical attention if an illness or injury seems to have caused the strike. See if you can get some extra help with your household chores and older children so that you can spent lots of time with the baby. Try to relax and concentrate on making breastfeeding a pleasant experience. Stop and comfort your baby if he or she gets upset when you try to nurse. Remember that your baby isn't rejecting you, and that breastfeeding will almost always get back to normal with a little time.
Extra cuddling, stroking, and skin-to-skin contact with the baby can help you re-establish closeness. Some babies are more willing to nurse when they are sleepy. Sometimes it helps if you are rocking or walking around (in which case a sling or cloth carrier can be useful.) Try nursing in a quiet room with the lights dimmed to avoid distractions. You can also try to stimulate your let-down and get your milk flowing before offering the breast so the baby gets an immediate reward.
You will probably need to express your milk to avoid feeling uncomfortably full, as well as to keep up your milk supply (especially important in a nursing strike that continues for more than a day or two). You can feed the baby your milk with a cup, eye-dropper, feeding syringe, or spoon. Avoid bottles: they can cause nipple confusion.
Your local LLL Leader can offer support and more suggestions if these don't seem to be working.
Recommended Reading: Our resource page on Nursing Strikes.
Our FAQs present information from La Leche League International on topics of interest to parents of breastfed children. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise. If you have a serious breastfeeding problem or concern, you are strongly encouraged to talk directly to a La Leche League Leader. Please consult health care professionals on any medical issue, as La Leche League Leaders are not medical practitioners.