The Dreaded Nursing Strike
I have been fortunate to have experienced only one nursing strike with my son. It was a painful and frightening few days, but we made it through. My son had barely started solids when it happened. Suddenly, he wouldn’t nurse, and he refused to eat or drink anything else. He didn’t seem sick, but I ran to the doctor after 48 hours because he was getting dehydrated.
It turned out my son was refusing to nurse, drink milk from a bottle, or swallow just about anything, because he had tonsillitis. We started him on antibiotics as well as a painkiller, and slowly he returned to nursing.
What Exactly is a Nursing Strike?
A nursing strike is when a breastfed baby/ child suddenly refuses the breast. It can be confused with self-weaning, but since it typically happens quite suddenly you can often tell the difference. While natural weaning typically occurs over a period of weeks or months, with a gradual reduction in amount of breastfeeding, a nursing strike is very abrupt.
In the case of my son’s nursing strike, he didn’t ask to breastfeed for several hours, and when I offered the breast he refused. At first, this didn’t seem to extraordinary, but as the day wore on and he also refused to eat or drink anything else, while continuing to refuse to breastfeed, I grew worried.
In our case, my son slowly came back to the breast as the pain of his tonsillitis receded. I am sharing my tips on getting through a nursing strike below, based on both my experience and what I heard from friends when I was researching what to do with my son who wouldn’t breastfeed.
Tips to Survive a Nursing Strike
- Check for a cause – such as illness or ear infection. While many nursing strikes are completely inexplicable, they can also can be due to factors such as pain from an illness, teething or, emotional upset after a new experience. During my son’s nursing strike he wasn’t displaying signs of illness, but when we saw the pediatrician I learned he was refusing to nurse due to tonsillitis. Once the tonsillitis was treated, he slowly resumed breastfeeding.
- Encourage breastfeeding through skin-to-skin contact. A lactation consultant once told me that skin-to-skin can work like a “reset button” if your baby is upset. I practiced skin-to-skin a lot through the newborn and infant stage, but then stopped. It can work wonders with older babies, as well, though, and helped my son resume nursing when he was sick.
- Pump or hand express to keep up supply (and relieve engorgement). Nursing strikes usually last only a few days, but it is useful to express some milk to avoid the pain of engorgement or possible clogged ducts. Of course, it will also help maintain your supply, and you can offer the expressed milk to your child.
- Offer expressed milk in a cup or bottle. Especially if a younger baby (whose diet is primarily breastmilk) is refusing the breast, you can offer the expressed milk in a cup or bottle.
- Begin a feed with a cup/ bottle, then try switching to the breast. Your child may be more willing to nurse directly if they have already had a bit of milk. Offering expressed milk first might whet their appetite, so to speak, so they are willing to try drinking more milk by breastfeeding directly.
- Experiment with breastfeeding in different positions than usual. There are a variety of comfortable breastfeeding positions to experiment with. You can also try nursing in a carrier – this worked well for me when my son was in an easily distracted phase because it helped him to focus. You can also do skin-to-skin easily in a carrier. During my son’s nursing strike, we used the carrier a lot.
- Offer the breast while baby is very drowsy or nearly asleep. This has also worked well for me. Both when my son was refusing to nurse and also during a distractible phase, he was willing to nurse if I offered him my breast just before or after a nap, or at bedtime. In particular at the height of his nursing striked, this was the only way I could get him to breastfeed!
- Be persistent. If you are ready to wean, then you can take the nursing strike as a solution. However, if you feel you and your child should continue your breastfeeding relationship, be persistent in the face of the nursing strike. They typically last only 3-5 days, but even a longer nursing strike can be overcome if you keep offering to breastfeed and experiment with some of the ideas above.
Have you experienced a nursing strike? How did you overcome it? Share your experience in the comments!
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