Mother holding a baby who refuses to breastfeed.

My Baby Refuses to Breastfeed – Conquer the Nursing Strike

My Baby Refuses to Breastfeed But Will Take a Bottle

“My baby refuses to breastfeed but will take a bottle.” This is one of the MOST common things I hear from breastfeeding mamas. 

It’s interesting that so many women deal with the same problem. Often their baby will start refusing the breast after bottle feeding. Why is it such a common problem? And how can moms get their baby to prefer the breast over the bottle? All these things are answered here. 

Baby who refuses to breastfeed but will take a bottle.

Baby Refusing Breast After Bottle Feeding

First, let’s talk about your baby refusing the breast after bottle feeding. You might hear of what’s called a “nursing strike”. A nursing strike happens when a baby refuses to breastfeed suddenly for any reason.

If it happens before your baby is 1 year old, it’s a nursing strike not weaning. Babies aren’t ready to wean until after 1 year, so if you want to continue breastfeeding – be assured that your baby is only striking temporarily. They’re not ready to wean yet.

So what exactly happens during a nursing strike?

Sometimes breastfeeding was going really well and then mom decides to use a bottle. Other times, mom was using a bottle along with breastfeeding for a long time. Then something happens. 

All of a sudden, her baby refuses to breastfeed… but will still take a bottle. 

The baby will latch, unlatch, cry, fuss, and might all out refuse the breast completely. Then when given a bottle, the baby sucks down the milk happily. 

But moms who want to breastfeed might want their baby to prefer the breast over the bottle. So they wonder what in the world could be happening. Breastfeeding is natural, so why is their baby refusing the breast but wanting a bottle? 

Why Baby Only Wants the Bottle But Not the Breast

1. Rule Out Medical Problems

Sometimes babies refuse to breastfeed when there is something else going on. Some medical causes of your baby refusing to breastfeed include:

  • A cold or sickness
  • An ear infection
  • Reflux
  • Teething
  • Pain from underlying conditions

If you suspect there is something else going on to cause your baby to refuse breastfeeding, see your baby’s pediatrician. They will be able to help you determine if there’s a medical reason for your baby’s breast refusal.

Often when it’s caused by an ear infection, fixing the problem will get your baby back to your breast.

2. Consider Other Causes

A nursing strike could also be caused by other things. Simple changes in your routine may cause your baby to reject breastfeeding. Some other causes include:

  • Changing your perfume or soap: some babies don’t like these changes.
  • A change in your baby’s nap or nursing schedule: did you go back to work? Start sleep training?
  • Your milk’s flow is different: are you engorged or do your breasts feel softer?
  • The taste of your milk changed: have you changed your diet? Did your menstrual cycle start?
  • The environment: is it too loud or too bright? Is your baby distracted?
  • Stress: are you stressed? Babies can pick up on their mother’s stress.
  • Milestones: sometimes babies refuse the breast during growth spurts or milestones.

Try to think about if anything significant has happened in your life recently. Did you change any of your routines? Did your baby reach a new milestone like standing up or walking? Many of these changes can cause a temporary nursing strike.

If you’ve implemented new changes, try getting back to your old routine and see if the breast refusal stops.

3. Nipple Confusion or Flow Confusion?

You may have heard of the term “nipple confusion”. But I don’t quite agree with it… 

I don’t think the issue is confusion about the nipple. 

There’s a much better explanation… 

Flow confusion. 

Hear me out. When a baby takes a bottle, the bottles nipple is placed into the back of their mouth. Often babies are leaned back and the bottle tilted – gravity makes the milk flow into the back of the baby’s mouth. 

The instant baby sucks on the bottle, milk comes out. Depending on what size of a nipple is used, the milk might flow very fast. 

When the milk flows extremely fast, the baby has to gulp quickly to keep up with it. They may finish a bottle in record time. 

The flow is fast, and instant. That’s totally different than breastfeeding. 

How Breastfeeding is Different than Bottle Feeding

When you think about why baby refuses the breast after bottle feeding, consider the flow from the breast. A baby has to start suckling and no milk comes out at first. 

The baby suckles for a short time which them stimulates a let-down. Only when the let-down starts does milk start to flow. 

But even when milk starts to flow, it takes work from the baby. When breastfeeding, a baby must suck continuously to get the milk. Gravity doesn’t help it enter their mouth. 

Let’s talk about human nature. 

If you had to cut vegetables, boil water, cook rice and pop meat in the oven to make a meal…. Or you could have the EXACT same meal places warm right in front of you, what would you choose? 

Personally, if I could have a perfect warm meal without cooking it (or paying for takeout)… if it just appeared for me to eat, I’d choose that every time! 

Babies are little humans. If there’s an easier path to take they’ll probably take it. 

A bottle is easy, takes less work to get milk flowing, and often is faster. 

So when you want to breastfeed after your baby is used to bottle feeding, you place them in front of you and offer your breast. And your baby is just mad! Well… it makes sense when you think about the flow differences between the breast and bottle. 

After I explain this to moms it makes a ton of sense. Then they ask me: 

“Okay, that makes sense but you still haven’t told me what to do. I mean I get why my baby refuses to breastfeed but will take a bottle… 

How can I change it? 

Especially because my baby is refusing to breastfeed. I have to feed her!”

I hear you. 

There are ways to get your baby to prefer the breast over the bottle.

Infographic about how to get baby to breastfeed during a nursing strike.

How to Get Baby to Prefer Breast Over Bottle

Here are some tips for how to get your baby to prefer the breast over the bottle: 

Stop using a bottle.

Bottles satisfy the desire to suck in babies. One thing you could do is stop giving the bottle.

You may consider stopping pacifiers too.

Instead offer your baby milk in a cup or if they’re very young, in a syringe. They will want to satisfy their urge to suck and will be more willing to take the breast. 

Have someone else give the bottle.

This doesn’t work for everyone, but some babies associate mom with breastfeeding.

If you always breastfeed and have someone else give the bottle, your baby may start to realize that from mom they breastfeed and bottles come from somewhere else. 

Do paced feeding.

Paced feeding is generally a good way to give a baby a bottle. Babies naturally take pauses when they eat to breathe and rest.

When your baby does this, either tilt the bottle back so there’s no milk in the tip or take it out of their mouth until they’re ready to start again. 

Wait for your baby to open their mouth to latch onto the bottle.

Your little one has natural instincts to open their mouth for a feeding. Instead of popping the bottle into their mouth, try making them work a little harder for it. Place the bottle nipple on your baby’s lips and wait for them to open their mouth before placing it in their mouth. 

Use a smaller bottle nipple.

Using a smaller nipple can help with the flow confusion. Try using a preemie nipple or newborn nipple. This way, it takes a bit more work to suck the milk out of the bottle. It will make your baby start to prefer the breast over the bottle. 

Hold the bottle horizontal.

Holding the bottle horizontal will prevent gravity from putting the milk right into the back of your baby’s throat.

When the bottle is horizontal, it allows your baby to lead the feeding. They can suck the milk when they’re ready for it instead of gulping to deal with the large amount flowing in.

Make bottle feeding take the same amount of time as breastfeeding.

Using the above techniques (holding the bottle horizontal, paced feeding, using a smaller nipple), try to make a bottle-feeding last as long as a breastfeeding session would.

This will help your baby start to prefer breastfeeding over bottle-feeding because they aren’t gratified any faster with the bottle. 

Make times at the breast happy.

This is extremely important! When you try to breastfeed, make sure your baby is happy. If they start fussing or crying, don’t force them back to the breast. Just try and enjoy your time together.

Sometimes it takes patience and is slow going to get your baby to prefer breastfeeding over the bottle. If you have to give a bottle because they’re so unhappy at the breast, that’s okay. Try again next time. 

Give the bottle at first to take the edge off.

If your baby just refuses to breastfeed, you can try giving an ounce or two in a bottle first. This may take the edge off and help your baby accept breastfeeding.

Additionally, try catching your baby’s hungry cues. Feeding them before they’re ravenous can help with a nursing strike.  

Try a birth bath.

This is a super interesting way to get your baby to prefer breastfeeding over bottle feeding. Try taking a warm bath with your baby. Don’t force anything, no pressure. Just enjoy each other.

Keep your baby safe and lay them on your chest, halfway in the water. It reminds babies of birth and they will often latch themselves! 

Do a “bait and switch”.

You could try the “bait and switch method”. Sometimes if you start off by giving your baby the bottle, you can quickly take it out of their mouth while they’re feeding and pop your breast in.

It doesn’t work for all babies – but some just switch over to breastfeeding.

If it doesn’t work, try using a nipple shield. Switch your baby from the bottle to the shield, then do the bait and switch again. From the shield to your bare breast!

A baby that won't breastfeed held by his mother.

Important Tips for Nursing Strikes

It’s important to remember that these are only temporary. But encouraging your baby to get back to the breast can take some work. Once babies start to prefer the bottle over breastfeeding, it can be difficult to convince them otherwise.

You might see results immediately or it might take some time for your baby to overcome the nursing strike.

In the meantime, follow these tips for when your baby is on a nursing strike:

  1. Feed your baby.
    • The most important thing to do is feed your baby. No matter what is going on, your baby needs hydration and nutrition. The best thing to feed your baby is breast milk so pump if you can.
    • Bottle feeding can cause flow confusion. Try feeding your baby with a cup or syringe.
    • If you do give a bottle, follow the steps above to make bottle feeding more like breastfeeding.
  2. Maintain your breast milk supply.
    • The next most important thing to do is to maintain your milk supply. If you want to get back to breastfeeding, you need to keep your supply up.
    • Pumping is the best way to do this. Pump as much and as often as your baby eats.
    • Breast pumps aren’t as efficient as babies, so if you don’t pump enough milk – leave the pump on for 5-10 minutes after you see milk come out. Even though milk isn’t coming, the nipple stimulation is giving your body the signal to continue producing more milk.
  3. Try not to stress.
    • Babies can pick up on stress. Know that nursing strikes are common, they just take a little time to work through.
    • Maintain happy times at the breast. Spend time skin-to-skin and make sure your baby knows when they are near you, they’ll be loved and cuddled.
  4. Get help if you need to.
    • If your baby still refuses to breastfeed after a week or more, it may be time to get some help.
    • Doctors can rule out any medical condition that may be causing the nursing strike.
      • If your baby starts losing weight or not peeing and pooping as much as normally take them to the pediatrician.
    • Lactation consultants see this often – they have many tricks up their sleeve to help you and your baby get back to breastfeeding. I offer virtual consults, contact me by clicking here.

My Baby Refuses to Breastfeed But will Take a Bottle: In Summary

If your baby has started to refuse breastfeeding after giving a bottle, take heart. This is a super common problem that many mamas deal with. 

Sometimes there may be other reasons for babies to reject breastfeeding such as teething, ear infections, sickness or pain. Make sure to rule out these things. Often if the cause is a medical issue, the baby will go right back to breastfeeding after they feel better. Go to your pediatrician to make sure there isn’t something else going on.

But sometimes there’s nothing wrong with the baby. And often after giving a bottle, babies will start to refuse to breastfeed. Try to make bottle feeding more like breastfeeding which will get your baby to start preferring the breast over the bottle again. If you need help or have specific questions, I’d be happy to talk with you! I offer one-on-one consultations or you can join my free Facebook support group here.

If you liked this article, check out these others:

Tongue Ties in Babies: The Truth Will Surprise You

When Does Breast Milk Come In During Pregnancy and After Birth?

How To Guide: Power Pumping to Increase Milk Supply

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