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Is Your Baby On A Nursing Strike?

Alisa Ikeda


Babies are notorious for trying to fool their moms into thinking they're weaning. Beginning at around three to five months, some babies abruptly refuse to nurse. Known as a "nursing strike," periods during which babies stop breastfeeding for several days can be caused by any number of factors, all temporary and surmountable: A cold of stuffy nose, which inhibits breathing while nursing; An ear infection, which causes pressure or pain while sucking and swallowing; Discomfort from teething, a cold sore, or an infection (such as thrush); A fever or a heat wave that makes bodily closeness less appealing; Fear that you may yell as you did last time he tested those new chompers on you; A new found preference for bottles-if your child is given frequent bottles, he may like the faster milk flow, have nipple confusion, or be reacting to a reduction in your milk supply; Overuse of a pacifier, which may meet his sucking needs and leave him uninterested in the breast; A major disruption in routine, such as moving or your returning to work after a maternity leave; An unusually long separation from you (a business trip or a weekend away); Reduced milk supply-if you've been stressed out, your supply may be reacting; A change in the taste of your milk, caused by the resume of your period, a vitamin or drug, or a new pregnancy; A new deodorant, soap, or perfume applied on or near your breasts; Strong let-down-your milk may be letting down too quickly for your baby's liking, which may make him frustrated and refuse to latch on;Poor nursing habits-at around four months, when a baby begins to realize life is happening around him while he nurses, he may be squirmy or position himself awkwardly at the breast; Too much to do-busy six- to nine-month-olds are easily distracted and often opt to "snack" at the breast over settling down for a full meal; And sometimes for no perceptible reason at all!

Nursing strikes can be trying to say the least. Mothers feel understandably anxious, rejected, and panicky about whether their babies are starving themselves. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that a baby who doesn't want to nurse is weaning himself. But if the refusal to nurse is sudden, it's not a sign of readiness to wean. A baby who is itching to wean will almost always do so gradually, over a period of weeks, months, or even years. And it is highly unlikely that a baby under a year old will self-wean.

If your baby is on strike, now is a good time to reaffirm your commitment to breastfeeding. With patience and support, you can overcome the setback within five or six days: Offer the breast frequently and give your baby lots of skin-to-skin contact;If you suspect strong letdown is the culprit, try expressing some milk before feeding; Visit the pediatrician to rule out any medical causes (such as an ear infection or thrush); Express your milk by hand or pump as often as your baby had been nursing, which will help prevent plugged ducts or engorgement, and will provide your baby with the milk he needs; Don't be tempted to supplement (baby won't starve himself-really!) and do keep him nourished by offering expressed milk in a cup, a spoon, or an eyedropper (if you must use a bottle as a last resort, opt for a slow-flow nipple); Relax-it'll help maintain or build up your milk supply and calm your baby; Try nursing when your baby is sleepy and in an environment free from distraction (a quiet, dimly lit room); Vary your nursing position; Try nursing in a rocking chair or while walking around, as the movement may be soothing to your baby; And see your lactation consultant or contact La Leche League for advice and support.

Keep in mind that your nursing relationship will evolve over the months. It's natural for babies to have hungry phases and less hungry phases just as you do. And breastfeeding patterns change as babies move into various developmental stages (remember back when your now grinning, kicking, busybody of a nurser barely opened an eye when at the breast?).

For Further Reading: Bumgarner, Norma Jane. Mothering Your Nursing Toddler-Revised Edition. La Leche League International, 2000.

Alisa Ikeda is a writer and editor in Marin County, California, with a B.A. in sociology and a background in book publishing.
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