Nursing Strike

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated March 2, 2013.

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thumbnail2A nursing strike occurs when a baby who has been breastfeeding well suddenly refuses to nurse.  It usually occurs after the baby is at least two months old.

What causes a nursing strike?

Sometimes the cause is never known.  However, the following list provides the most common reasons your baby may have a nursing strike:

  • Teething or thrush (which can cause mouth pain)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • Response to a sharp reaction from mother after biting
  • Physical pain from an injury, immunization, etc.
  • Artificial teats from a bottle or pacifier
  • Overstimulation from stress, loud noises while breastfeeding, chaotic environment, etc.
  • Strict breastfeeding schedules; not allowing baby to nurse when hungry
  • Illness such as ear infection (can cause pain while sucking) or runny nose (making it hard to breathe while nursing)
  • Food intolerance or allergy
  • Overabundant milk supply or low milk supply
  • Major changes to a baby’s routine – moving, mother returning to work, etc.
  • Change in soap, deodorant, detergent, etc. so mother smells different to baby
  • Any past issues or challenges with breastfeeding may need to be revisited

Is my baby trying to wean?

Babies who have nursing strikes before one year of age are most likely not trying to wean.  Babies have a physiological need for the nutrition from a mother’s breast.  When natural weaning occurs, the baby is typically happy and may just forget to nurse.  In contrast, a baby having a nursing strike is usually discontent and unhappy.

How long does a nursing strike usually last?

A nursing strike typically lasts 2-4 days, although it can be shorter or last longer.  Many times a nursing strike can resolve on its own, though for some babies it will be important to determine the cause and solve the underlying problem in order to help transition baby back to the breast.

How should I handle a nursing strike?

There are two main things to consider during a nursing strike: keeping your milk supply up and feeding your baby.  A mother should express milk for every feed her baby should have had at her breast to maintain her milk production and prevent a plugged duct.  This milk can then be given to her baby, preferably in a cup (syringe, spoon, or eyedropper also possible for young baby) so that baby cannot satisfy his need to suck somewhere other than his mother’s breast.  It is important to make sure your baby is getting enough milk while on a nursing strike so make sure to monitor wet and dirty diapers.

Continue to offer your breast to your baby.  Don’t exasperate or frustrate him though.  It may help to try to breastfeed when he is very sleepy.

Make sure to spend lots of time in skin-to-skin contact and even try soaking in the bathtub together.  Skin-to-skin contact is magical and can do wonders for helping a baby latch on and nurse.  Not only is it comforting and relaxing for both of you, your baby will be able to latch on at anytime if he is ready.

Try nursing in a variety of positions as well as while rocking or gently moving around.

Try not to get frustrated if your baby just wants to cuddle or even just lick or nuzzle your nipples but not latch on and nurse.  Comfort him and try to make him feel your breasts are a happy and pleasant place to be.

Is there anything to make a nursing strike end more quickly?

Most nursing strikes end within a few days on their own.  Identifying the cause of the nursing strike and resolving the issue can often bring immediate closure to the nursing strike.  Making sure your baby does not have a pacifier or bottle can also help resolve the nursing strike more quickly.  And don’t underestimate the power of skin-to-skin contact.  Do it frequently!