One of the most emotional complications of breastfeeding can be a nursing strike. This is when a baby suddenly refuses to nurse. Whereas weaning is usually a gradual process where a baby slowly cuts down on the number of daily nursing sessions, a nursing strike is quite the opposite — and it can leave both mom and baby very unhappy and confused!
Nursing strikes can happen at any age, usually resulting in an irritable baby. When this happens, many mothers will wonder if their baby is suddenly weaning. It’s important to remember that baby-led weaning before a baby is 1 year old is somewhat rare, and weaning is usually a slow, gradual process.
The typical nursing strike scenario involves a baby who had no issues nursing, but one day screams at the breast or when mom approaches the chair where they always nurse. Once this happens, the next step is trying to figure out why this is happening.
Common causes of a nursing strike include teething, an ear infection, stress related to recent travel or having a house full of visitors, or a baby reaching exciting milestones such as walking. Depending on what appears to be causing the nursing strike, a mom can tailor how she responds to it.
In most cases, nursing strikes last from two to four days, though some can go on longer! During the time your baby is not latching, your milk supply must be protected by expressing milk either by hand or by pumping at the times when your baby would normally feed. This milk can be given to the baby in a bottle or cup, keeping in mind that you don’t want to make the alternative so “easy” that your baby will continue to reject the breast. Feeding that doesn’t include a bottle, or paced bottle feeding if one is used, can help gently remind baby that feeding at the breast is much more enjoyable!
The key to getting through a nursing strike is to keep offering the breast but to stop once it gets stressful, either for mom or for baby. When your baby starts arching his or her back and fighting at the breast, it’s time to step back and take a break for that feed. Pushing further will only make your baby associate stress and pain with breastfeeding, which will only make the nursing strike worse.
Increased access to nursing is key, and this can be done through frequent skin-to-skin sessions or taking a bath with your baby. Many moms find their babies will finally give in and nurse if they are sleepy enough, so waking baby for a dream feed or nursing early in the morning when he or she is drowsy can help end a nursing strike.
While most nursing strikes are short-lived and fixable, there are some situations where a strike lasts for a few weeks, or that this sudden abrupt end to nursing is actually a baby’s way of weaning. For these moms, emotional support is key, especially for the mother who had hoped to breastfeed longer than her baby planned on. Meeting with a lactation consultant can be very helpful in figuring out what might be going on, as well as in helping a mom come to terms with her and her baby’s breastfeeding journey.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- A nursing strike is when a baby who previously had no issues breastfeeding suddenly refuses to nurse.
- Most nursing strikes last between two and four days.
- A mother who is experiencing a nursing strike must continue to express milk to protect her milk supply during this time.
- While true weaning is usually more gradual, a nursing strike is often very sudden, and at the same time usually short-lived.