A nursing strike is when a baby refuses to nurse for a certain period of time. It can last a few days, or in extreme cases a few weeks.
Often, a nursing strike is mistaken for self-weaning. You can be fairly certain that, if your baby is under the age of 1, a sudden ceasing of breastfeeding is down to a nursing strike and not weaning. The process of baby-led weaning from the breast is a gradual one, with most mothers not being able to recall the last time their child fed. A nursing strike is abrupt and often upsetting for both parties.
Nursing strikes can happen at any age, and there are many reasons why they might occur. Often it can be due to the child being startled whilst nursing at the breast (even if they have been startled at the breast before and not been affected by it), or from being ‘forced’ into latching on by a heavy-handed midwife or nurse. They may have, for some reason, experienced pain whilst nursing — teething is a very common culprit. Sometimes, an exact reason cannot be pinpointed. The important thing to remember is that nursing strikes are temporary and it is perfectly possible to work through one and resume breastfeeding.
If your baby is younger than 12 months old, getting milk into them is more of an issue than it would be if they were older and eating a variety of solid foods. You will want to pump/hand express frequently in order to have something to feed your baby, and of course to keep your supply going. It is best to avoid using artificial teats to give your baby the expressed breast milk, as this could cause nipple confusion and add to your problems in the long run. If your baby is older than 5 or 6 months old, they will probably take quite easily to using a beaker/sippy cup, or you can use a syringe, spoon or open-rim cup like you would for a younger baby.
If your child is older, you will still want to keep up the pumping in order to keep your supply and to provide milk for your child. At this stage, your little one will probably be proficient in using a cup for the milk. You could also use your milk for their morning cereal in order to ensure they are still receiving it.
The most important thing to remember during a nursing strike is this: DON’T PANIC. So much easier said than done, I know. Having your child refuse to nurse is incredibly distressing, and can leave you with a feeling of having been rejected. Please don’t take it personally; your baby is not rejecting you and they still love you dearly.
Following are some ways in which you can gently encourage your baby back to the breast.
- Make the breast freely available, offering it frequently. However, if your child becomes distressed when you offer the breast, stop immediately and don’t force the issue. The idea is to make them feel comfortable with nursing again.
- Pump regularly. I can’t stress how important it is to keep doing this during a strike. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt, but ensuring that your breasts are emptied regularly will not only keep your supply going, but it will help prevent engorgement too (and therefore nasty problems like plugged ducts and mastitis).
- Have lots of skin-to-skin time. This is very useful especially if your baby is becoming distressed with being encouraged to feed. Strip off your top half and get baby undressed too. Take baby into the bath with you, snuggle with baby in bed/on the settee/wherever, do whatever you like. If the breast is available but there is no pressure to feed from it, it will reinforce the association that breasts = positive experiences. Plus, skin-to-skin contact has been shown to help increase milk supply which is always useful during a strike.
- If your child is older, try talking it through with them. You would be surprised at how much an 18 month old can understand. There are lots of wonderful books about nursing that you could read together, further reinforcing that positive association. It is also a good idea to take your child to breastfeeding groups (such as La Leche League meetings) if at all possible, so that they can see other children nursing. Talk about nursing frequently; however, as always, if it upsets them don’t push the issue.
- Be patient. This is probably the hardest tip to follow. Try to remain calm and positive. Your child will pick up on this and will be much quicker to return to the breast.
Don’t pay any mind to people telling you that this is the end if you don’t believe that it is. Your instincts will tell you the truth. If you don’t feel that this is the end of your nursing relationship, it’s very unlikely that it is. Seek help and support during this time and rest assured that your baby will be nursing again soon.