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What to Do When Your Breastfed Baby Goes on a Nursing Strike

If you’re a nursing parent, you’ll know first-hand how feeding can feel like complete guesswork. 

We all wish that breasts came with volume markers!

After all, it’s all instinctive - there’s no empty bottle or handy beep to tell you that your baby has had enough milk. And what’s more, it’s not always easy to encourage your baby to feed at all. 

Nursing strikes are incredibly common, and the biological reasons underpinning them make a lot of sense - this is one of many ways in which our brains have evolved to protect us. However, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying for new parents! 

When you see your baby refusing to feed, this can cause all sorts of fears and upset for parents. But, if you take away one thing from this blog, let it be this - nursing strikes are a very common challenge for breastfeeding mothers. Usually, nursing strikes are very temporary, and will only last for a day. 

If you monitor the situation, and then seek professional help if the situation gets worse, then everything will be ok. 

To help you feel informed and prepared to manage nursing strikes, we’ve created this handy guide. Below, we’ve outlined what causes nursing strikes, how to identify nursing strikes, and actionable tips to address them. 

What is a nursing strike?

A nursing strike is when your baby refuses your breast outright. This will have, seemingly, come from absolutely nowhere. 

And, unlike weaning (which happens progressively) a nursing strike will be a complete refusal. 

Nursing strikes can last for anything from a few hours, to a couple of days. In some cases, they can even last for up to two weeks. The length of a nursing strike depends on the reasons for the strike, and the way that the baby has reacted to them. More on this later. 

What can cause a nursing strike?

Many mums find that it is a complete mystery why a nursing strike has occurred. They have done everything to keep feeds safe, comfortable and relaxed. So, why are their babies acting so hesitant?

A nursing strike can occur for a huge range of reasons. And, in reality, these reasons can be absolutely minute! 

Babies are incredibly sensitive and, if they detect any changes in their environment that alarm them, then they may refuse to breastfeed. Think of it as their brain’s internal safety function, which responds to stresses in their environment by trying to protect them against this unknown risk. 

Learn more: Struggling with breastfeeding

A mother attempting to breastfeed, but the baby is experiencing a nursing strike

As such, a nursing strike can be caused by any of the following: 

  • If there was a loud or distressing noise during the last feed (for example, if mum shouted an ‘Ow!’ after her baby bit on the nipple).
  • If a baby has an illness that is making breastfeeding difficult, uncomfortable or painful. Such illnesses could include a cold, earache, sore throat, congestion or hand, foot and mouth disease. 
  • If the environment during a particular feed was over stimulating or very distracting. 
  • If a baby is finding nursing uncomfortable due to an ulcer or a small cut in their mouth. 
  • If a baby is teething 
  • If they are feeling frustrated by a low or slow supply of milk
  • If the flow of milk is too fast, which means they find feeding challenging 
  • If the baby was startled during a feed. For example, your toddler might have been acting up in the presence of the baby when nursing. 
  • If your baby senses that you are feeling stressed or angry. 
  • If a change in your personal products (such as a new deodorant, perfume or body wash), creates a different smell, which is unfamiliar to your baby. 
  • If your baby was separated from you for a considerable period of time, and this made them feel distressed. 
  • If any big changes in your life (such as a new job or moving house) is causing you to feel stressed and distracted. 

As you can see, nursing strikes are by no means uncommon. And, you shouldn’t criticise yourself if a nursing strike does occur. After all, you can hardly control every single one of these individual factors!

The main thing to remember is that, once your baby feels assured and comfortable, realising that the change is nothing to fear, then they will resume feeding. 

So, in the vast majority of cases, the best thing to do is to wait it out. As you wait for a nursing strike to pass, continue to present your breast at regular feeding times and, if they still aren’t getting enough food through breast feeding, spoon feed your expressed milk to your baby. 

Learn more: Breastfeeding: Best Tips and Advice for Nursing Your Baby

What are the main signs of a nursing strike?

The main thing that allows mums to spot a nursing strike is its abruptness. 

Nursing strikes are distinctly different from teething and weaning, because they are an abrupt and total refusal of the breast. It’s rare for a nursing strike to occur in a baby that is less than 3 months old. 

Often, mums say that they feel completely taken aback by the sudden refusal, and feel like it’s come from nowhere. This is a key sign of nursing strike. 

A baby crying on top of her mother during a nursing strike

This distinctly differs from weaning, as nursing strike is sudden and complete, and occurs in a baby that was happily and consistently breastfeeding before this point. In comparison, weaning is a process that occurs gradually, with the baby breastfeeding less bit by bit. Furthermore, it is very rare for a baby that is less than 2 years old to self-wean. 

Another way to identify a nursing strike is the way that your baby responds to the breast. Often, they may look like they’re about to breastfeed, but turn away from the breast before they start. Or, they might appear completely uninterested by the idea of a feed, or even start to cry if you try to feed them. 

But try not to worry - usually, after around a few days, a nursing strike will resolve itself. Your baby will see that the initial source of stress is nothing to fear. And, when they do, they’ll happily feed again. 

Learn more: What to Expect During the First 2 Weeks of Breastfeeding

What can I do about it?

Let us once again assure you that a nursing strike is nothing to panic about. It’s perfectly normal, and it happens to almost every mum at some point. 

But naturally, you’ll want this period of strike to be as short as possible. 

So, here are a few methods that you can try to help resolve a nursing strike: 

  • Keep giving your baby the opportunity to breastfeed, at your regular feeding times. Maintaining your regular routine will help to ease your baby’s stress. 
  • See whether your baby is suffering from any physical issues. For example, you might want to gently check whether there is a cut around your baby’s mouth. 
  • See if your baby is showing any signs of a cold, earache, sore throat, or other illness. 
  • If you’ve started using a new scented product, stop using it for a few days, and see if that makes your baby happier. 
  • Skin-to-skin contact is a great way to keep your baby feeling comforted and relaxed. So, get in lots of cuddles! 
  • We’d recommend not giving your baby a bottle or a dummy when they are on nursing strike. This way, when they experience the natural urge to suck, they won’t be able to fulfil in a way other than breastfeeding.  
  • Continue to express breast milk, and feed the baby with a small spoon or an eyedropper. This will ensure that they are still getting enough milk. You could even try freezing your breast milk into ice cubes - this is a great way to help ease teething pain!
  • Keep being gentle. Allow your baby to return to breastfeeding in their own time.
  • Make sure that feeding times are quiet, peaceful, and full of close contact, in an environment with minimal distractions.

Learn more: Baby Bonding: Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact

When should I seek help? 

If your baby is not drinking anything at all, or if you believe that your baby is very ill, it is vital that you speak to a professional immediately. 

A mother and health provider engaged in a discussion about strategies and support to overcome nursing strikes

Earlier, we listed the main causes of nursing strikes. If you cast your mind back, you might be able to pinpoint any instances that could have caused your baby to feel stressed during a feed. 

If you can figure out why your baby has started to refuse to feed, it will be a lot easier to come up with a solution. 

If you believe that the nursing strike was only caused by a loud noise or a moment of distress, then the nursing strike should resolve itself quickly. In this case, you can keep following the advice listed above, until your baby feels comfortable again. 

However, if you think that the nursing strike is being caused by an illness, or another physical condition, then you should arrange an appointment with a doctor or lactation consultant. 

They can then diagnose and treat the condition. Plus, if the nursing strike is being caused by a medical or physical issue, then it’s unlikely to go away without the help of a professional. 

Other instances in which you should seek the help of a doctor or lactation consultant is if the nursing strike lasts longer than usual (more than 7 days). In this case, they will help you to identify and resolve the issue. 

And remember, if your baby’s nursing strike is leaving you feeling scared, nervous or uncertain, you can always go to see your nurse or lactation consultant. They are there to help you, and provide reassuring, actionable guidance. 

You might also want to speak to friends and family who have experienced the same situation themselves. Hearing their experiences can be hugely reassuring. So, if you feel like it would be beneficial, don’t hesitate to reach out to your support network. 

Mum's story: The End of Our Very Special 7 Months of Breastfeeding

by Lola&Lykke Team