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What is a nursing strike?
A baby who refuses to breastfeed (and is not in the process of being weaned) is said to be on a "nursing strike." A nursing strike is your baby's way of telling you that something's wrong. And it'll probably take a little detective work to figure out the problem.
What causes it?
Here are some reasons your baby may go on a nursing strike:
- Mouth pain from teething, a cold sore, or an infection (such as thrush)
- An ear infection, which may cause pressure or pain while nursing
- A cold or stuffy nose, which can make breathing difficult while nursing
- Reduced milk supply or a slow letdown
- A major disruption in your baby's nursing routine or schedule
- If your teething baby has bitten you and your reaction startled him, he may be afraid to nurse after that.
- A change in soap or other toiletry that causes you to smell different to your baby
- A change in the taste of your milk, caused by a vitamin or drug or by hormonal changes (from pregnancy or your period, for example)
What can I do?
A nursing strike can be tricky for even the most dedicated breastfeeding mother. With patience and support, though, you can get through it.
A nursing strike usually lasts between two and five days, but it can go on longer. While you continue to encourage your baby to nurse, you'll need to pump (or express your milk by hand) every few hours, or about as often as your baby had been nursing. This will help keep up your milk supply, prevent plugged ducts and engorgement, and provide your baby with the milk he needs. You can offer the expressed milk in a sippy cup, a bottle, a spoon, an eyedropper, or a feeding syringe.
Here are some ways to overcome a nursing strike:
- Try nursing when your baby is very sleepy. Many babies who refuse to nurse when they're awake will breastfeed when they're sleepy.
- Visit your baby's doctor to rule out medical causes (such as an ear infection or thrush) and seek feeding advice.
- Vary your nursing position. (Your baby may be more comfortable in one position than another.)
- Nurse in motion. Some babies are more likely to nurse when you rock or walk them than when you're sitting or standing still.
- Nurse in an environment that's free from distractions. It's common for a 6- to 9-month-old to go on a nursing strike as he becomes more aware of the world. Babies this age are easily distracted and often prefer to "snack" at the breast instead of settling down for a meal. Try nursing in a dimly lit, quiet room, away from the sound of the radio or television.
- Give your baby lots of skin-to-skin contact (try nursing without a shirt on or in a warm bath). A sling or carrier can help keep your baby close between nursing attempts.
It's easy to jump to the conclusion that a baby who doesn't want to nurse is weaning himself. But it's unlikely that a baby under a year old who has been successfully breastfeeding is ready to give up nursing. (An older baby may cut back in reaction to a new pregnancy, though.)
Will it affect my baby?
A nursing strike can be upsetting for your baby as well as for you. Try to keep other elements of your baby's routine as normal as possible during the strike. Give him extra attention and physical contact.
If you're worried that your baby isn't getting enough food, keep track of wet diapers. At least five to six wet disposable diapers per day – or six to eight cloth diapers – indicates that he's taking in enough fluid. (Disposable diapers are so absorbent that you may not notice every time he urinates.)
Don't hesitate to call the doctor if you're worried.
Can I still nurse?
Absolutely. It's important to keep trying to nurse your baby. With patience and persistence you should be able to get back to your breastfeeding routine.