Babies are notorious for fooling their moms into thinking they are weaning. Beginning at around three to five months or later, some babies abruptly refuse to nurse. Known as a "nursing strike," periods during which babies stop breastfeeding for several days can be caused by any number of factors, all temporary and surmountable:
~ A cold or stuffy nose, which inhibits breathing while nursing
~ An ear infection, which causes pressure or pain while sucking and swallowing
~ Discomfort from teething, a cold sore, or an infection (such as thrush)
~ A fever or a heat wave that makes bodily closeness less appealing
~ Fear that Mom may yell as she did last time he tested those new chompers on her
~ A new found preference for bottles (if your child is given frequent bottles, he may like the faster milk flow, have nipple confusion, or be reacting to a reduction in Mother's milk supply as supplementation impacts milk supply)
~ Overuse of a pacifier, which may meet some of his sucking needs, but leave him uninterested in the breast
~ A major disruption in routine, such as moving or mom returning to work after a maternity leave
~ A long separation from Mom - a business trip or a weekend away [For a securely attached baby, any time apart from mom often feels like an eternity]
~ Reduced milk supply - if you've been stressed out, your supply may be reduced
~ A change in the taste of Mom's milk, caused by the resumption of your period, spicy or unusual foods, a vitamin or drug, or a new pregnancy
~ A new deodorant, soap, or perfume applied on or near the breasts
~ Strong let-down - the milk may be letting down too quickly for Baby's liking, which may make him frustrated and refuse to latch on
~ Poor nursing habits - at around four months, when a baby begins to realize life is happening around him while he nurses, he may be squirmy or position himself awkwardly at the breast
~ Too much to do - busy six-to-nine-month-olds are easily distracted and often opt to "snack" at the breast over settling down for a full meal
~ And sometimes for no perceptible reason at all!
Nursing strikes can be trying to say the least. Mothers feel understandably anxious, rejected, and panicky about whether their babies are starving themselves. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that a baby who doesn't want to nurse is weaning himself. But if the refusal to nurse is sudden, it is not a sign of readiness to wean. A baby who is itching to wean will almost always do so gradually, over a period of many weeks, months, or even years. And it is highly unlikely that a baby under a year old [or even two years] will self-wean.
If your baby is on strike, now is a good time to reaffirm your commitment to breastfeeding. With patience and support, you can overcome the setback within five or six days:
~ Offer the breast frequently and give your baby lots of skin-to-skin contact. Wear your baby.
~ If you suspect strong let-down is the culprit (baby arches back, pushes away, or gags), express some milk (pump for a few minutes) before feeding.
~ Visit the pediatrician to rule out any medical causes (such as an ear infection or thrush) if suspected.
~ Pump milk as often as your baby had been nursing, which will help prevent plugged ducts or engorgement, will prevent milk supply reduction, and will provide your baby with the milk he needs in the meantime.
~ Don't be tempted to supplement with non-breastmilk items (baby won't starve himself - really!) and do keep him nourished by offering expressed milk in a cup, a spoon, syringe, or an eyedropper (if you must use a bottle as a last resort, opt for a slow-flow nipple that mimics the breast such as the Adiri, Breastflow, or Born Free).
~ Relax - it will help maintain or build up your milk supply and calm your baby.
~ Try nursing when your baby is sleepy and in an environment free from distraction (a quiet, dimly lit room). Lay down to nurse.
~ Vary your nursing position. Try nursing in a rocking chair or while walking around, as the movement may be soothing to your baby.
~ See your lactation consultant or contact La Leche League for advice and support.
Keep in mind that your nursing relationship will evolve over the months. It is natural for babies to have hungry phases and less hungry phases just as you do. And breastfeeding patterns change as babies move into various developmental stages (remember back when your now grinning, kicking, busybody of a nurser barely opened an eye when at the breast?).
Alisa Ikeda is a writer, certified instructor of infant massage (CIIM), and mother of three in Marin County, California. Visit her website at: AlisaIkeda.com
Additional Information on Nursing Strikes and Weaning:
La Leche League International Nursing Strike FAQ
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (book)
Tips for Nursing Strikes
Help! My Baby Won't Nurse (KellyMom.com)
Surviving a Nursing Strike
Breastfeeding Latch Trick (if baby is young and latch is a problem)
When a Baby Won't Nurse
La Leche League International: Helping Babies Reluctant to Nursing
Toddler Nursing Strike
A Natural Age of Weaning
A Time to Wean
How Weaning Happens (book)
Natural Weaning Age (pdf) from The Baby Bond (book)
Do Babies Under 12 months self-wean? (KellyMom.com)
Breastfeeding Older Children (book)
Adventures in Tandem Nursing (book)
Helpful books, articles and websites for nursing mothers linked at Breastfeeding Resources