As a breastfeeding mom, all sorts of challenges might arise. Things you didn’t even think… that you would even think about! And what do you do when your baby won’t breastfeed?
I’m here to answer that question!
Here’s what do do if your baby wont breastfeed (it even has a name: breast refusal).
That’s what we call it! Breast refusal. Sounds simple enough, your baby is refusing the breast.
What could be some possible reasons for breast refusal?
Good question. Here they are:
- Newborn baby– your baby is brand new and still learning
- Weaned baby– you may have weaned your baby and decided to try breastfeeding again
- Nipple confusion– your baby is confused by a bottle or pacifier
- Nursing strike– before 12 months, babies don’t wean they have “nursing strikes” that usually resolve
- Babies being babies– some babies are a bit fussier than others when it comes to breastfeeding
The good news is there are some tried and true methods to try when your baby won’t breastfeed.
What To Do When Baby Won’t Breastfeed
Here’s where we get into the nitty gritty details of WHAT TO DO when your won’t breastfeed. These rules apply for every situation where there’s breast refusal.
1. Encourage positive times at the breast
Overall, the most important thing is to encourage positive times at the breast.
Make sure that your baby knows breastfeeding is a happy and cuddly time with mom. Even if it’s not time for a feeding, you can practice skin-to-skin with your baby for bonding.
Think about what would happen if your baby is screaming EVERY time you place them near your breast. Eventually, they’ll start to decide that maybe breastfeeding isn’t much fun. That’s definitely not the message you want to send!
So if your baby is ALREADY crying and upset, don’t even try to start a nursing session. It’s not sending a message and it might leave you in tears. Instead, follow some of the following tips and wait until a time to bond with your baby near your breasts when they’re content. This will ultimately encourage them to get back to breastfeeding.
2. Feed them before breastfeeding
This is a method that could help when your baby won’t breastfeed. It’s especially useful for babies that have nipple confusion or difficult to catch hunger cues.
If your baby’s screaming their head off and refusing to breastfeed, just offer them a bottle.
The MOST IMPORTANT thing is to feed your baby. It won’t work to just not feed them with the idea that they’ll breastfeed if they’re hungry enough. Babies don’t quite understand that and many will just fall asleep rather than try to breastfeed. If this happens, they will inevitably not have enough nutrition. When they wake up, they may just start screaming all over again and you’re back where you started.
So, offer them some milk in a bottle. If you have pumped breast milk, this is the best.
Just give them an ounce or two, it doesn’t have to be a lot. An ounce or two should be enough to take the hunger edge off, then try to breastfeed again. If your baby starts screaming though remember the first tip! Your baby needs encouragement so don’t be dismayed if it takes a bit more milk or doesn’t work during every feeding.
3. Try the bait and switch
The “bait and switch” is one of my favorite methods to get a baby back on the breast. It goes hand-in-hand with feeding them a little before trying to breastfeed.
First get yourself ready to nurse.
Next, offer the bottle with your baby laying in a breastfeeding position.
Let your baby drink from the bottle until they’re calmed down, and then BAIT and SWITCH!
Take your baby off the bottle quickly and latch them on to your breast.
This trick works miracles for some moms. Something to remember though, it doesn’t work for everyone. All babies are different. It also might work one time and not work the next time. Again, just try to keep your baby happy while at the breast.
4. Try instant gratification
When you breastfeed, your baby stimulates a let-down. A let-down is what happens when your breasts contract and start releasing milk. This can take a few minutes and is caused by breast stimulation.
What that means for breast refusal is that your baby has to work for the milk at first. They may have to suckle for a few minutes before milk is released. This can make babies very mad! Especially if they’ve been shown how instantly gratifying a bottle is. Sometimes babies won’t breastfeed because they want the milk immediately- especially when they’re hungry.
In order to solve this problem, try stimulating your breasts to let-down right before feeding your baby.
This could look like a few different things.
- You can try to hand express before a feeding session. Place your thumb and forefinger on either side of your nipple about an inch away. Press them in towards your chest and then roll your fingers towards your nipple. You should see some drops of milk coming out. Keep hand expressing until your milk starts flowing more and then latch your baby.
- Breast massage is a good option. You can use your hands to massage your breasts and move them around. Massage all over, lift them up, and touch your nipples. This can stimulate a let-down or make a let-down come easier when your baby starts to nurse.
- Look at pictures of your baby. Believe it or not, seeing pictures of your baby can make you let-down earlier. Pair looking at pictures of your baby with breast massage, and then latch your baby for a feeding.
- Try pumping until you see a let-down. If you have a breast pump, this is a great temporary option. When you see milk start coming quickly from your breasts with each pump, turn the pump off and latch your baby. They will have the immediate satisfaction of milk as soon as they start to suckle.
5. Make the bottle less rewarding
This advice is for any mom that gives a bottle during times of breast refusal. Your baby may or may not have nipple confusion which could be contributing to the problem. Either way though, reducing reward from the bottle is important.
Remember my first tip? (Keep times at the breast happy…)
This one goes right along with it!
In just the way that you want to encourage times at the breast, you also want to discourage times with the bottle. Now I’m not saying that you want to make your baby scream and cry while feeding with a bottle. But I am saying that you don’t want the bottle to be more gratifying than breastfeeding.
Latch your baby onto the bottle like your breast.
Latching your baby onto a bottle is SO much easier than latching them onto the breast.
It extremely common for parents to just “pop” the bottle nipple right into the baby’s mouth! Even without baby opening their mouth to accept it. You can just push the bottle right in which is extremely easy.
Try to make bottle feeding as similar to breastfeeding as possible.
So, when you sit down to feed your baby place the bottle nipple near their nose. Wait for your baby to open their mouth and then give them the bottle. This makes latching and feeding a little more work, and makes breastfeeding seem not so difficult.
Give paced feedings.
Again, this makes bottle feeding more similar to breastfeeding. It is a little less rewarding and delays instant gratification from the bottle.
A paced feeding is exactly what it sounds like.
Instead of letting your baby chug the whole bottle quickly in one go… pace them.
Hold the bottle horizontally.
This reduces the effect of gravity for milk flowing out of the bottle and into your baby’s mouth. As your baby drinks, they will take pauses. Pay attention to when your baby pauses. When they do, just tilt the bottle down so the milk isn’t flowing.
Then, when your baby starts sucking again place the bottle so that milk is in the tip (remember to keep it horizontal through).
Use a slow-flow nipple.
Again, this is to make bottle feeding less rewarding.
If you use a slow-flow nipple, your baby will have to work harder to get the milk out.
If you combine a slow-flow nipple with paced feedings AND making your baby work to latch them onto the bottle, your baby will be encouraged to return to the breast.
If Your Baby Won’t Breastfeed, Take Heart!
This usually isn’t a quick fix! You might feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back. Gradually, things should get better until eventually your baby will be breastfeeding again!
Remember, the most important thing is to feed your baby!
As long as your baby is fed, you’re doing a great job. This is a common problem for many mommies and babies- you aren’t alone.
Give yourself a break, take a breather, and know that this common problem is okay. You’re doing great, keep at it and be patient. With time and persistence this problem will resolve and be a distant memory.
Kealy Hawk, BSN, RN, CLC
Kealy is a Registered Nurse, Lactation Counselor, and most importantly a mommy! Her own baby feeding struggles gave her a passion to help moms throughout their feeding journey. She specializes in breastfeeding support and evidence-based formula recommendations. To talk with Kealy or take one of her breastfeeding or formula classes, visit https://littlebearcare.com.