Is baby on a nursing strike or self-weaning?

It’s vexing and even downright worrying when your little one suddenly refuses to nurse. Here’s what you can do.

You’ve finally crossed those tough initial breastfeeding challenges and established a sweet nursing schedule with your little one. Everything is proceeding smoothly, which means that bubba and you are happy. Well done, mum!

Then, one morning, you wake up to find that bubba doesn’t want to nurse. Nothing works, though you’ve tried every position to coax him to take your breast. You’re at your wits’ end because you’ve been making milk all night and are ready to explode. Yet, your little one is adding to your misery by spurning your breast.

You decide to pump for now and try latching her later in the day. However, your sweet baby who nursed like a champ just a day ago, keeps refusing your “mummy milk”. She refuses it the next day, and the next…

Why baby refuses the breast

It’s not uncommon for a baby to refuse your breast. Very often, this happens when they are too distracted or overstimulated to latch on. So, although your kewpie is starving, she’s too wired to take the breast. If this has happened to you on several occasions, the best thing to do is either use a nursing cover or locate a quiet room with very little stimulation, so that you can feed baby in privacy, suggests Valerie Ng, a certified lactation consultant and co-founder of Mumsfairy, which conducts prenatal lactation workshops.

It’s very uncommon for babies under the age of 1 to self-wean ― this is the easiest way to differentiate a nursing strike from self-weaning.

That said, when baby refuses to latch on for consecutive days, it can be very stressful. You’re wondering if you’re eating something wrong to make your milk taste bad, if bub is severely ill or ― gasp! ― your little angel is ready to end the breastfeeding journey, when you’re certainly not ready for it.

Bubba is suddenly completely disinterested in breastfeeding for two reasons usually. Either he’s on a nursing strike or has decided to self-wean. So, how do you tell the difference?

Nursing strike vs Self-weaning

First, it’s very uncommon for babies under the age of 1 to self-wean ― this is the easiest way to differentiate a nursing strike from self-weaning. So, if your little one hasn’t blown out her first birthday candle yet, you can safely assume that she’s going through a nursing strike.

“A nursing strike happens when baby is breastfeeding well but suddenly refuses to nurse,” says Ng. Your little one can go on a temporary strike for several reasons. She may:

* Be feeling unwell: Bubba may have a sore throat or stuffy nose, which can exacerbate her discomfort when she tries to breastfeed.

* Be teething: Itchy gums, pools of drool…need we say more?

* Have tongue tie: You may have noticed this when bubba was initially unable to latch well and has problems sticking his tongue out far. Here’s our full guide to detecting and correcting a tongue tie.

* Fear mummmy’s reaction from previously being bitten: Did you scream in surprise (a little too loudly) when bubba bit you for the first time? Yeah, you and your baby are still recovering from that.

* Be put off by the forceful let down: Trying to keep up with a gush of breastmilk, especially when baby’s sucking speed hasn’t matched it, can put her off her feed.

* Dislike the change in the milk’s taste: Asparagus, alcohol and spicy food can all change the taste of your breastmilk, which might not agree with your little one.

* Be deterred by the poor supply: A hungry baby who’s not getting enough from the boob is going to give up sucking eventually.

* Forget how to latch on after a prolonged separation/Has a strong preference for the bottle: These two tend to go hand in hand, because your sweetie is obviously getting her milk from a bottle, since you aren’t around, which means she’s used to not latching directly. Also, lactation consultants say that suckling from your nipple is different from drinking from a rubber teat. So, if baby has been drinking from a bottle, she might not want to return to from a nipple.


a) Offer lots of skin-to-skin contact: Remove your top, keep your kewpie in her diapers and lay her on top of you. Skin-to-skin contact, also known as kangaroo care, benefits fragile newborns especially as it can encourage weight gain and reduce respiratory problems. Such close contact can also help your boob-refusing baby as you’re giving her constant access to your breasts, so you can offer them to her quickly when hunger strikes.

“Breastfeeding is not just direct latching. Mothers who are exclusively pumping are considered breastfeeding, too.”

b) Try feeding in different positions Junior may have outgrown the cradle hold and wants to feed from a different angle or position. The good news is that you have plenty of breastfeeding positions to choose from ― here are our top picks ― give them all a go and you might find one that your little one loves.

c) Try different times: Breastfeeding doesn’t only have to happen at specific feeding times. Offer your boob as soon as baby wakes up or right before she falls asleep. If you’re predominantly feeding baby via a bottle when you’re away, offer her the boob the minute you get home. Another tip is to nurse baby after giving her a bottle, so that she continues to associate feedings with both the breast and bottle.

d) Don’t force or pressure your baby to nurse: You may think a little tough love never hurt anyone, but in this case forcing your baby to take your breast can have serious long-term repercussions such as breast aversion, Ng says. “I have seen a mother whose baby will cry the moment she lowers baby into cradle position and it is emotionally taxing for the mother.” Nor should you let bub go hungry in the hope that she will breastfeed eventually. She advises, “I would advise against cold turkey and letting baby cry inconsolably as it may elevate cortisol levels from the stress. I believe it is stressful for everyone at home too.” Use a bottle to feed baby ― supplement with formula, if needed, until she’s back on the breast. Most of all, don’t feel guilty!

Be kind to yourself ― make peace with the outcome, so as not to feel overwhelmed by the entire situation. It’s always good to take a step back, assess the situation and figure out why you’re feeling disappointed. If baby has indeed self-weaned, you are probably coming to terms with the sudden end to your precious breastfeeding journey ― especially if you weren’t ready to stop.

Or you might be worried that your supply might plummet now that you aren’t latching baby on directly, such that junior may not get enough of the good stuff. All these issues can be worked out.

"Breastfeeding is not just direct latching. Mothers who are exclusively pumping are considered breastfeeding, too,” Ng states. “Rather than spending energy on being disappointed, perhaps you will feel better that you’re ‘doing something’, so that baby can continue to receive expressed breastmilk.”

If you’re struggling to keep your emotions in check, know that there are so many other ways to keep bonding with your little one. Spend more time playing and talking to her, plus, enjoy snuggling together, so that you’re connecting with each other constantly.

Photos: iStock

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