A few months ago I was away from my nine-month-old for seven days. Even though she’d been on solid foods for six months, we had a great nursing relationship and she was still nursing several times a day.
Then my trip happened.
When I returned, she wanted to have nothing to do with nursing. I had pumped while I was away to keep up my milk supply, but she was accustomed to the bottle and preferred it. Not only that, but she was mad. And try as I might, I could not get this girl to take the breast. For days. And days.
After tons of work, research, and tears, we finally got back to it and have been happily breastfeeding ever since.
The entire ordeal lasted more than two weeks and was honestly one of the most stressful things I’ve been through as a mom.
(Side note: I know a nursing strike is nothing compared to the trauma and tragedy some moms go through. Without negating the size of “real” issues, a strike can feel really difficult and vulnerable while walking through it.)
If you’re trudging through a nursing strike and alternately crying and screaming into a pillow- there is hope. Read on to find out the really effective secrets I learned to get babe back to the breast.
1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Being impatient gets you nowhere. Which stinks, because more or less the only emotion available is impatience. And if not, then despair. Really try not to despair. Try to be patient. There’s important work to be done before actually getting back to breastfeeding, and this pre-work takes time.
2. It might by physical
It is possible that there might be some physical or medical reason for your baby to reject the breast. Pain from teething, thrush, cold sores, ear infections and low milk supply can all be cause for a nursing strike. So can a change in the taste of your milk, which may happen with a change in your diet or medication. If you suspect a physical reason for the strike, a meeting with your healthcare provider or lactation consultant might to discover the reason and resolve the issue.
3. On the other hand….
If it’s NOT physical—it’s emotional. Babies are often more sensitive to their surroundings and more emotionally intuitive than we give them credit for. I knew my girl was emotionally intuitive and very attached at nine months, and this concerned me before I left for my seven-day trip. I’d read a bunch of forums that assured me that she’d be fine in my absence. When I returned she was obviously confused, scared, sad, and angry with me. (Lesson #1: never ignore mommy intuition.) After finding out (through tears and stress) that she wasn’t about to trust me enough to nurse again, my first priority was to re-establish trust, and all initial efforts went to that.
Perhaps you didn’t have an extended separation, but there are other things that cause babies to emotionally withdraw from moms and their nourishing tatas: yelling in pain during breastfeeding (in response to a biting baby); increased stress or fear in you or in your home; any kind of upheaval, new environments, new caretakers, separation, etc. Anything that might make a baby feel insecure can cause a baby to stop trusting. Whatever it may be, baby is having an emotional reaction and your first order of business is to re-establish trust and strengthen your bond.
4. How to re-establish trust
Firstly, bring the stress down. Don’t (ok let’s be real: pretend not to) focus on breastfeeding. Focus on connecting. Play games. Have lots of face time, lots of touch. Try baby massage. Sing. Tell that baby he or she is safe, loved, cared for- over and over again. Explain what happened and why, and reassure your babe as much as possible.
Most importantly, put that babe near you.
And by near I mean wear this child in a carrier or wrap as much as possible, giving them the opportunity to get up close and personal with your lovely lady lumps without trying to offer one for feeding.
At the beginning of her strike, my girl wouldn’t even so much as come near the breast, much less drink from it. So I went topless, wearing her skin to skin for the better part of a week, for as much of the day as I was able. After some days, she would rest her head on my bare chest, and sleep there.
This is the first milestone—get that baby comfy with the breasts again, minus the pressure of having to eat.
5. Prime naptime
Despite how averse you might feel about nursing to sleep, if you want to get this child back to the breast, your hope for success lies in the sleeping moments. Each time you’re putting baby down to sleep, hold baby near your bare breasts. Here again, do not irritate this child- if you’re moving too fast, that baby is going to reject you like a bad boyfriend. Back off and take it slow. Also don’t offer feeding unless baby initiates interest.
Repeat after me: a tired baby on strike is not a rational creature.
Your only goal here is to get that babe comfortable enough with your breasts to let your nipple lay against his or her lips once they are asleep. This may actually take days. (Ridiculous, I know. Some babies are determined that way.)
Once baby is falling asleep with nip right near his mouth, you are well on your way.
Stay steady, good warrior. Halfway there.
6. Timing is everything
Ok, baby is comfortable enough to lay their head on your bare chest and be near you. Now it’s time to start winning her over. You can try to get that baby to latch when she’s asleep, but this is actually way trickier than it sounds. Too asleep and she won’t suck, she’ll just gag on your milk and be mad. Too awake and she’ll notice your sneakiness and throw a raging fit. The timing of the moment is the difference between success and failure. Wait until that moment right after the real sleep starts. I would test my girl by moving her arm slightly—if she woke I’d wait. Otherwise, it’s go time. Once you’ve confirmed baby is out enough to stay asleep you can try one of two things.
7. Stimulate the sucking reflex
First thing to try, once the last point is achieved. Go ahead and put your nipple in that sleeping child’s mouth. Then gently take your thumb and trace a line from the underside center of baby’s chin down the center of the neck to the collarbone. Repeating this gently a few times may work to stimulate the sucking reflex and baby may start to nurse. One thing though: make sure your letdown is strong so baby has good reason to keep going once he starts.
My experience: I did this and it worked, but she would just taper off after a few sucks. So it only worked-ish. But definitely worth a try.
8. The magic bullet
Here’s what did the trick for us: during the correct timing (point #6) I would make sure my nipple was up against her lips and she had just fallen asleep. Then I’d take a dropper full of warm expressed milk and soak my nipple in it, letting it run onto her lips. As long as her lips were already touching my nipple and she was asleep enough but not too asleep, this caused her to immediately latch.
Do this as many times as necessary in one sitting to get baby to latch and drink fully. If baby wakes up, stop all attempts and just soothe baby without breastfeeding- try steps 6-8 during the next nap.
9. Before you celebrate your success...
This doesn’t mean baby is going to be ok with nursing during waking hours. Yet. Even after she drank a full meal while asleep, my girl still wouldn’t willingly nurse for two more days. So I stuck with it. I did steps 6-8 during naps only, didn’t offer the breast at any other time and continued to do the emotional and trust-building work by wearing her, playing, and lots of face time.
I can’t stress enough the importance of doing these steps in order. You really have to get that babe to trust you again before you can make progress on the breastfeeding part.
And please, whatever you do, don’t self-sabatoge by trying to force it. You can woo a baby much more easily than you can force her.
If you’ve read this to the end, it’s likely that you’re going through a strike right now. If that’s you- my deepest sympathies, momma warrior. You are amazing. You are strong. So is that baby, which is why you must work so hard. But you can win.
Please tell me how it goes for you, k? I want to know what works and what doesn’t, and any new tips you discover along the way.
Godspeed, good reader. I’m looking forward to your comments below~