Why your baby is refusing the breast

Sometimes, babies suddenly reject your breast. Learn why bubba stages a nursing strike and how to end it.

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While most first-time mothers find breastfeeding challenging, Alicia Tan’s newborn took to it immediately.

Her son latched on well and he was gaining weight steadily. But right after Jia Wei turned 4 months, Tan noticed that he was rejecting the breast for no apparent reason.

Did this mean he was ready to wean? No, the experts say. Self-weaning is rare in babies under 12 months of age. Moreover, the process should be gradual rather than sudden, explains Dr Mythili Pandi, lead trainer with the Breastfeeding Mothers Support Group Singapore (BMSG).

She adds, “When babies abruptly stop breastfeeding, it is called a nursing strike. Besides baby’s age and the rate it happens, another way to tell if it’s a strike is that the baby is clearly not happy with the situation.”

“When babies abruptly stop breastfeeding, it is called a nursing strike.”

While some mums might decide to take the opportunity to wean their babies off the breast, others, like Tan, prefer to continue nursing. It might last just two to four days or go on for as long as two weeks, but take heart. While you need reserves of patience, time and effort, it is possible to get the little ones back to breastfeeding again.

Meanwhile, the mum should continue to do two things:
(1) Maintain her milk supply Express your milk as often as if baby is still breastfeeding. This way, you avoid the uncomfortable feeling of fullness in your breast while maintaining your milk supply.

(2) Feed baby Keep him full and happy. Do not try to starve your baby into nursing ― it is not going to work. For a baby who is less than 6 months old, feed him milk from a cup, a spoon or even an eyedropper. For those older, opt for a sippy cup.

Lactation consultant Valerie Ng of Mumsfairy and Dr Mythili offer insights as to why babies like Jia Wei suddenly refuse to nurse. The experts also offer tips on how mums can resolve nursing strike issues.

Problem 1: Baby develops a strong preference for the bottle

Ng says, “I have seen a mother whose baby latched on exclusively for months but started to reject the breast after having a few bottles. Nipple shields did not work, so she chose to pump exclusively.”
SOLUTION: Since it is easier to suck milk out of a teat/bottle than a breast, Ng says it can be difficult to alter the baby’s preference. Be patient. Make him work harder by switching to a bottle with a newborn or slow-flowing nipple. One way to avoid this problem, suggests Dr Mythili, is to delay introducing the bottle to baby.

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Problem 2: Baby is in an uncomfortable position or is too hot from close body contact

As babies get older, they might not feel comfortable with certain breastfeeding positions. So, mothers might have to vary their nursing position to accommodate their little one’s growth.
SOLUTION: Ng advises mums to use a pillow for support and to dress baby appropriately. A side-lying position is generally comfortable for both mother and child. It minimises handling and therefore less heat is generated.

Problem 3: Baby develops a fear of choking because of the fast milk flow

When a mother is engorged or has excessive milk supply, her letdown might be forceful, causing baby to choke if he fails to manage the flow.
SOLUTION: Ng suggests that mums adopt a laidback breastfeeding position, so as to allow baby to face down and rest on her abdomen. This position against gravity can slow down the flow of milk and allows him to control the speed of the milk flow.

She adds, “Mothers can also hand express for two to five minutes to relieve engorged breasts before a feed. For mothers with an oversupply, she can consider reducing her supply gradually, especially if she has no use for the excess milk.”

“If baby associates breastfeeding as a happy time, he will naturally be more willing to come back to the breast and end the nursing strike."

Problem 4: Baby is frustrated because of the slow flow of milk

The opposite could also happen ― when the milk flow is too slow and baby’s hunger is not satiated fast enough.
SOLUTION: Try breastfeeding when baby is not ravenous. This means knowing how to read his early hunger cues. Ng suggests mums apply a quick massage of their nipples and areolas to stimulate the milk ejection reflex.

She adds, “Babies are flow-dependent, so applying pressure at the breast can help speed the flow. This technique is known as breast compression and is not to be confused with cold or hot compression.”

Problem 5: Baby is resisting nursing as a result of a physical or medical issue

If baby has a cold, an ear infection, mouth injury, pain from teething or any other condition that might make nursing difficult or painful, it could interfere with breastfeeding.
SOLUTION: Get the right medical treatment and allow your munchkin time to recover before trying to introduce the breast to them again.

Problem 6: Baby gets fearful from mother’s sudden reaction of pain caused by him biting

Dr Mythili says that if that happens and mum becomes stressed, baby gets stressed, too, so there is a chance he might develop nipple aversion.
SOLUTION: Don’t continue forcing baby to take the breast after a major frustration. Stop and calm baby down. Let him suck on your finger, talk to him gently, have plenty of skin-to-skin contact to give him the chance to smell and get used to the breast again, or take a break by handing him over to dad.

Dr Mythili advises, “Always stay calm and composed during breastfeeding and allow baby to take the lead. If baby associates breastfeeding as a happy time, he will naturally be more willing to come back to the breast and end the nursing strike.”

Photos: iStock

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