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6 Reasons Why Newborns Refuse to Breastfeed: Your Quick Guide

Newborn baby crying and refusing to breastfeed.

Newborn babies should be eager and happy to breastfeed, right? At the breast, they find nourishment, nurturing, and general pleasure. Yet, whether it’s a newborn or a toddler, sometimes they just shut down. Why so? We’ll look at 6 reasons why newborns refuse to breastfeed.

1. Slow adaptation to extrauterine life

As I liked to say when I was working as a labor/delivery nurse, “This baby has had a long, tough trip.”

Think back to a time when you’ve had a long, tough trip. You drove 600 miles in one day. Or you drove only 200 miles, but endured the entire trip in the teeming rain. Or you missed your flight connection. Do you feel like doing anything else once you reach your destination?

Sometimes, there is nothing “wrong” at the moment, but the baby is just worn out from the birthing event.

2. Birth trauma

Birth trauma can and does happen. During the birthing process, infants can suffer all sorts of physical trauma. I’ve seen a lot in my day.

A laceration from an internal fetal scalp electrode, a hematoma, a caput succedaneum, a fractured clavicle, an Erb’s palsy, and more. And these are only the obvious signs of trauma! And, they are likely explanations for why newborns refuse to breastfeed.

I am fully convinced that other trauma, such as a torticollis, might not be evident until later, but can certainly affect breastfeeding. Dr. Andrew Dorough and I discuss more about these types of injuries.

Let me tell you a pattern I’ve noticed in clinical life, but for which I have no scientific proof.   

Some infants have a “favorite side.” They do fine on one side, but cry or pull away on the unfavorite side. I wonder: Did they experience trauma that was not observed, documented, or diagnosed?  

3. Prematurity and/or low muscle tone

Whereas full-term, healthy infants may have low muscle tone for a while, preterm infants, including late preterm infants, may need weeks to develop good tone.

Infants need many intraoral and extraoral muscles to suckle effectively. If those muscles aren’t strong, the baby may not want to use them. Or, the baby may start to suckle, but quickly give up because of fatigue.

As the infant approaches 40 weeks postmenstrual age, this tends to resolve. In the meanwhile, low tone is one of the reasons why newborns refuse to breastfeed.

4. Inappropriate state behavior

Sometimes, parents or healthcare professionals are eager to have the newborn breastfeed at a particular time. But if the baby is in a deep sleep, he will be entirely unwilling to do anything other than complete his sleep cycle.

5. Noxious stimuli

By “noxious stimuli” I mean any kind of visual, auditory, tactile, or olfactory stimulus that the baby finds objectionable.

Most of us can quickly realize the baby will object to a loud noise or a bright light might. But there are a several other examples that are less obvious.

Olfactory (smell) stimuli are most often overlooked as noxious stimuli. And babies, whose sense of smell is keener than adults, will often resist breastfeeding. Why so?

The “mixed signals” from maternal fragrance, deodorant, or any other kind of odor (even nearby flowers) can confuse babies.  If the smell of the mother’s colostrum or milk is overpowered by other odors, they may be reluctant to feed.  

These are some common and often overlooked reasons that certainly could persist later on, but usually, they don’t. There are many reasons why newborns refuse to breastfeed. But, in the words of my beloved friend Debi Bocar, RN IBCLC PhD, “Most breastfeeding problems are transient, and solvable.”

Today I went over reasons that newborns may refuse to breastfeed. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on other reasons older babies refuse to breastfeed.

Have you had a newborn refuse to breastfeed? How did you cope with the situation? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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