My Baby Won’t Nurse - Could He Be Weaning? Is This A Nursing Strike?

I told my husband I was going to blog about nursing strikes and he said, “Tell the moms to improve working conditions! Increase wages! Negotiate with the unions!” Funnily enough, his joking response may not be too far off the mark...

My Baby Weaned Himself

Some mothers find that somewhere around nine or ten months, their baby seems to be weaning. This can be a surprise and a disappointment if the mother was hoping to make it to at least a year, and some mothers even take this as a rejection by their baby. The normal human minimum age for weaning is much older, so what is going on? Why do these babies wean themselves?

One explanation given by Dr. Michael Latham of Cornell University is that these babies have “Triple Nipple Syndrome.” He is suggesting that when babies are receiving breast, pacifier and bottle on a regular basis, some will decide that the pacifier and bottle are for comfort and the breast isn’t a priority anymore. This Triple Nipple Syndrome is even more likely to occur if the mother is offering the breast on a schedule or if her supply is diminishing - perhaps from a subsequent pregnancy, reducing the frequency of pumping at work, or night weaning. Her baby may also sense if she is reluctant to nurse, and drop feedings rather than negotiate for the breast.

These babies are not exactly weaning. They are weaning to (or perhaps transferring to would be more accurate) another food source: a bottle.

Some mothers upon learning of this phenomenon may want to prevent Triple Nipple Syndrome and encourage their baby to continue to breastfeed. Some strategies for these mothers include:

  • If your baby must have bottles, try to make the bottle feeding times strictly business and make nursing a time of comfort and cuddles.
  • If you work outside the home, keep up with your pumping sessions and add hand expression to make them more effective. This will help keep up your supply.
  • Continue to nurse at least once at night. This makes a big difference to your supply.
  • If you must use bottles, try offering a smaller bottle before breastfeeding and nurse afterwards.
  • Avoid pacifiers - they were designed to replace the breast and they often do just that.
  • Nurse as often as you and your baby want to. Nursing is not only about food - It is an all-purpose mothering tool and an important source of connection, bonding and cuddles for both of you.
  • Take time to relax together - take a bath together, try lying down together and snuggling at nap time...whatever sounds relaxing to you.
  • Attend a breastfeeding support group like La Leche League for the support and ideas other breastfeeding mothers provide.

Some mothers who know that they do not want to nurse a toddler may want take advantage of this kind of weaning and allow it or encourage it to happen. Some people call the age between nine and twelve months the “weaning window.” If mothers want to wean, this period will often be a relatively easy time to wean the baby to a bottle. Between one and two years, many toddlers become very emotionally attached to nursing, and weaning may be much harder on both mother and baby. Typically children will naturally and gradually wean themselves sometime between age two and four.

My Baby Suddenly Stopped Nursing

Sometimes a baby will stop nursing abruptly and will refuse to nurse. If this occurs during the baby’s first year (or even in toddlerhood), and isn’t due to the situation described above, it could be a nursing strike. This can be very disconcerting for both mother and baby. The baby is hungry and seems unhappy but refuses to nurse.

Common causes of nursing strikes include stuffy noses, earaches, a new situation in the family (moving house, a new job, etc.), being startled while nursing, a change in mother’s perfume/deodorant/etc., but often the cause is never found. Most nursing strikes last at most a few days and with some work and negotiation, most babies will go back to breastfeeding.

Some strategies to try in cases like these include:

  • If your baby is congested or ill, talk with your pediatrician about ways to clear your baby’s nose to make breathing easier, and treat an ear infection if he has one.
  • Nurse the baby when he is sleepy or asleep.
  • Take a bath together and cuddle skin to skin.
  • Rock your baby with your shirt open and see if he will relax enough to latch.
  • Nurse somewhere completely different from your usual places.
  • Try a variety of different nursing positions.
  • Try bouncing or dancing while holding him in a nursing position
  • If you are both getting really frustrated, take a day or two off and pump or hand express to keep up your supply. Feed this milk to him in a cup - not a bottle - so that he will not get his sucking needs met on a bottle and will be more likely to return to the breast.
  • Contact a local breastfeeding support group like La Leche League for support and ideas.

So like my husband joked - patience, time, a change of nursing conditions, and negotiating with your baby to meet his needs will help most moms and babies get through a nursing strike and continue to breastfeed if that is what they want!