Weaning suddenly - or is it a nursing strike?

Breast refusal can be quite a worry for mums.
Breast refusal can be quite a worry for mums. Photo: Getty Images

"I breastfed my first son for 9 months. And then one day, he seemed to just wake up and flatly refused to feed ever again! He went from several feeds a day to absolutely nothing ever again - straight on to a cup from that day. I was shocked at first - it was so sudden and unexpected, and not something I'd thought about really. It was disconcerting to have such an important decision taken totally away from me, and be placed in the hands of my baby boy!”

When you first breastfeed your tiny baby, you may have some idea of how long you intend to breastfeed. Then, as your little one grows and your relationship grows along with her, you forget about your pre-determined plans to wean at a certain age. Breastfeeding itself is a relationship and as long as you and your baby are enjoying it, everything seems easy and natural. Now, you have a much greater appreciation that nursing your baby is much more than ‘just food’ –it is also about comfort as well as convenience. A quick boost of ‘booby milk’ is a very effective mothering tool when baby is difficult to settle or you need to soothe the inevitable bumps and knocks as your baby becomes mobile.

Weaning your baby can be mother-led –when you gradually encourage your baby or toddler to wean – or baby led, as you follow your baby’s cues and wait for him to decide. This may mean adopting a ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’ policy as he becomes an active toddler, letting him initiate requests for nursing, rather than offering the breast when you feel he may need to have a drink.  Whichever way you choose to wean your little one, when the choice is taken from you and he suddenly refuses the breast, it can be devastating – to you! As well coming to terms with the end of a very special relationship, you will have a sudden withdrawal of hormones to contend with and this can create mood swings (and teariness) that will add to your anguish. You may also have breasts full of milk that need to be relieved for comfort – and what a powerful reminder these are of nourishing your baby from your own body!

Although it is rare for a baby to self wean before around a year old, babies of any age can suddenly refuse to breastfeed and you may be told by well-meaning people ‘put her on the bottle, she has weaned’. Often, if you can address the reasons behind breast refusal, with patience and persistence, you may be able to overcome your baby’s resistance.

Bottled up

One possible reason for ‘breast refusal’ could be that you have been offering bottles to your baby. Alice, mother of an eleven month old says, "I have recently started back at work. I am working three days a week. My son has been on a bottle when I am at work and after 3 weeks he refused the breast. My milk dried up. I tried tablets to increase my milk, playing with him without my top on and he sleeps with me so I tried lots of feeding over night. This has been very hard on me as I wasn't ready and if I hadn’t started work, I think he would continue to feed."

Bottles and dummies require a completely different sucking action to the breast and the flow of a bottle is much more immediate than a breast. This means that your baby may become less effective at sucking the breast and it will also require some work on your baby’s part to start the milk flowing. If you need to leave your older baby, it is better to offer supplements by spoon or cup, than offering a bottle. And, if you need to supplement breastfeeds with top-ups by bottle, offer the breast again after your baby has some milk from the bottle. This way, he will associate his ‘full tummy’ feeling with nursing at the breast, so he will be less likely to reject you in favour of the bottle.

Is baby unwell or ‘on strike’?

Even babies who have been feeding happily can refuse to breastfeed or seem to struggle at the breast if they are unwell or uncomfortable while feeding. This may not be weaning but rather, a ‘nursing strike’. As Lisa explains, “my 10 month old daughter went on a nursing strike for eight days.  I knew there was no way she was deciding to wean at such a young age.  I think she had a sore throat at the time so I spoon fed her my milk and went shirtless, took relaxing baths with her and eventually she started feeding again.”

A baby who has oral thrush may find it uncomfortable to breastfeed and a baby who has gastro oesophageal reflux can squirm and pull off the breast if feeding is causing discomfort. A baby with reflux may find it more comfortable to feed ‘sitting up’ perhaps straddled across your leg to feed.  Babies with tongue- tie (get your baby checked if you are concerned) may find breastfeeding difficult and can suck in a lot of air, making them uncomfortable during feeds. Babies with allergies can also seem restless during feeds or may reject the breast. Although your baby is NEVER allergic to your milk, if he is sensitive to something in your own diet, a bit of detective work and eliminating the culprit food can make all the difference.

Older babies can seem to be rejecting the breast as they become more efficient feeders so feed more quickly and are also easily distracted; painful teething can see babies ‘go on strike’; some babies may refuse to breastfeed if you become pregnant and perhaps have a drop in milk supply and others may fuss as your periods return – apparently breast milk can taste ‘salty’ during your period. Then there are babies who refuse the breast for reasons that aren’t at all obvious and some of these babies may indeed have weaned.

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What can you do?

Whatever the reasons for your baby refusing to breastfeed, the most important considerations are to feed your baby (please don’t EVER try to ‘starve’ him into taking the breast), and to maintain your milk supply as you fathom out whether he has actually weaned, by expressing so that when your baby does attempt to feed, his efforts will be rewarded by good milk flow.

Offer lots of skin to skin contact – wear clothes with quick access to the breast and cuddle your baby with your top off, allowing him to fall asleep on you. Wear, cuddle and carry baby lots and sleep with or close to him, so you can offer the breast at his very first hunger cues.

Try feeding in different positions and at different times – lying down, walking, in the bath. Try offering the breast as baby is just waking, as he is falling asleep or when he is asleep but stirring slightly.

Don’t try to pressure your baby to feed. Stay calm (not always easy!) and avoid making your baby frustrated. If he is becoming stressed, feed him however you have been and try again later.  If baby is having bottles, he may try the breast after he has had a little drink, rather than when he is very hungry.

Be kind to YOU! As well as expressing a little milk for comfort and allowing your breasts to adapt gradually so you don’t end up with mastitis, acknowledge your feelings of grief.  Cuddle your baby and explore other ways to enjoy staying close – remind yourself, you have given your baby a beautiful beginning and this can continue even if he has weaned.  

Pinky McKay is an international Board  Certified Lactation Consultant. She is also the creator of Boobie Bikkies, all natural and organic ‘superfood’ cookies to boost energy and support a healthy breastmilk supply. Grab a free sample and Pinky’s free ebook ‘More Mummy Milk, Naturally’ at www.boobiebikkies.com.au