For various reasons, older babies might abruptly stop wanting to nurse. As I explained in a recent podcast, parents have many misconceptions about weaning. Often, parents misinterpret a nursing strike as “she weaned herself.” There is strong evidence that babies self-wean, but that’s a gradual process rather than abruptly.

Here are some tips for resolving the nursing strike.

1. Determine the cause.

The most common reasons for a nursing strike are prolonged separation, pain, distractions or overstimulation, or a negative experience while nursing. (This last one can happen when the baby bites, and the mother yells, “NO!” Be sure to read some ways to avoid biting.)

Older babies might abruptly stop wanting to nurse, parents may misinterpret a nursing strike as weaning. Here are tips on how to cope with a nursing strike.

2. Alleviate the pain.

Pain can occur for any number of reasons. Older infants might want to nurse more if they fall down and bruise themselves. But they will want to nurse less if the pain is in the mouth, or the pain is exacerbated by nursing.

  • help with teething: Before using a commercial product, try offering a cold teething ring, or even a cold washcloth, to relieve the pain. Better yet, try offering a homemade “milksickle” or “momsickle.” But don’t improvise; check out these instructions.  
  • get medical help for a yeast infection: When I see babies “popping on and off” the breast, I start wondering about oral thrush.. The characteristic white patches are often beneath the upper or lower lips, making it painful to stay attached while nursing.
  • change the nursing position. Pain can be exacerbated by an injury, an ear infection, or a different type of infection. Changing positions might help.

3. Alleviate the symptoms of an upper respiratory infection.

Babies need extra fluids when they have an upper respiratory infection. But if they have a stuffy nose, they might feel like they are suffocating when they nurse. Here are some tips for how to deal with a stuffy nose.

I know of mothers who have instilled a few drops of their milk into the baby’s nose just before nursing to help alleviate the symptoms, too.

4. Reduce stimulation and distractions.

Is it holiday time? Having relatives who fill the home with joy and laughter, or having a lot of commotion in the home can trigger a nursing strike. (And, noncelebratory events outside the home—e.g., having the neighbors sandblasting their house—can trigger a nursing strike, too.)

Remind older, excited siblings and well-meaning relatives to reduce the noise. And you may need to reduce any other type of stimulation, such as a ringing phone, a chiming doorbell, or blaring music.

5. Avoid giving formula or solid foods!

Giving formula will likely prolong the nursing strike. Instead, try offering water, or expressing some of your milk and giving it in a cup or a sippy cup.  

6. Offer, but do not insist.

Especially with toddlers who might be trying to assert their independence, it’s important not to set up an adversarial situation. Offer your breast frequently, but do not insist..

7. Stay close to your baby during a nursing strike.

Try sleeping or napping with your baby and offering your breast. In this drowsy state, babies may “forget” that they are striking. Carrying the baby in a sling so that he stays close to your breasts can work, too.

8. Take the baby to a dark, quiet room.

This works well for overstimulation. And, sitting in your favorite chair–with as little extra stimulation as possible–can help you to reconnect if you’ve had a prolonged separation. 

9. Take care of yourself.

If the nursing strike lasts more than a few hours, you may need to express you milk so that you don’t become engorged or get an infection.

10. Take heart! It will resolve!

You may feel rejected, frustrated, or confused. But try to focus on your role as a helper. Your baby may want to nurse, but for some reason, cannot or will not at this particular moment. Resolve to find and alleviate the problem. Remember, this is not weaning.

What have you found works to resolve a nursing strike?

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