Whether your baby refuses the breast as a newborn or when they’re older, it can be very stressful. Here’s why it might happen and what to try…
Why won’t my newborn baby breastfeed?
Sometimes, newborn babies struggle to latch on to breastfeed after they’re born. It can be worrying for new parents when this happens – you might think something’s wrong.
There may be a simple explanation. This information could help you find your own solution, or decide if you need further support.
Some of the more common reasons for newborn babies finding it difficult to latch onto the breast could be:
- a difficult labour or birth – your baby might feel sore or have a headache if the mother has had interventions in labour or if they were born very quickly
- medication used during labour – anaesthesia, epidural or pethidine can make your baby sleepy or groggy
- your baby being separated from you after birth – even for a few minutes
- discomfort due to a birth injury or bruising
- swallowing mucus at birth can make your baby feel congested, nauseous or uncomfortable
- an early unpleasant experience of attempting to breastfeed, such as being forced onto the breast
- the baby might have tongue-tie
Why won’t my baby breastfeed anymore?
Sometimes, older babies seem to refuse to breastfeed when they’d been breastfeeding just fine until then. This is known as a 'nursing strike.' They might refuse to breastfeed for 2-4 days, but it can be up to 10 days (Mohrbacher, 2013).
Reasons that your older baby might refuse to feed at the breast could include:
- something has changed that makes it difficult for baby to latch
- a strong or fast flow of milk, which your baby is struggling to take
- a painful mouth, due to an infection like thrush or because they’re teething
- being more aware of their surroundings and being easily distracted, for example by noise
- a change in the taste of your milk, such as that due to your menstrual cycle
- the introduction of more solid food
- a small number of babies might struggle because of severe or persistent reflux, known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), so they may link feeding with pain.
(Mohrbacher, 2013; Gonzalez, 2014; BellyBelly, 2016; NICE, 2017; Public Health England, ND)
What can I do when my baby refuses to breastfeed?
8 top tips to help your baby who’s refusing to breastfeed:
1. Try to identify what’s going on for your baby. Knowing the cause can help not only with a plan but it can be reassuring to understand what is happening and know there’s a solution. You could think about the following:
- Do they have a cold or an infection?
- Was there something that might have caused them to not want to feed?
- Talk to one of our Breastfeeding Counsellors or contact our Infant Feeding Line on 0300 330 0700 (option 1) for further support. It can be a great way to get some help to find out what’s happening.
- You could also contact a health professional to investigate any medical reasons why your baby might not be feeding.
2. Try to stay calm and not force a feed. Instead, allow your baby to take the lead.
3. Especially for young babies, many mums find skin-to-skin contact in a laid-back position helps to take the pressure out of the situation. It allows your baby to use their own natural instincts to feed (Burbridge, 2017).
4. Don’t worry if your baby bobs their head or moves it from side to side, they’re not rejecting the breast as it might appear. These are your baby’s natural ways of finding your breast (Coulson, 2012).
5. Try a different feeding position to see if you can get your baby more comfortable. Some babies find a laid-back breastfeeding (also called biological nurturing) position helpful if they are struggling to get a deep latch or if you have a strong let-down of milk (Coulson, 2012).
6. Sometimes, feeding your baby while they’re sleepy or even asleep can be helpful. Many mums say that these ‘dream feeds’ can be very effective for a baby who is uninterested when awake (Pitman and Bennett, 2008).
7. You could try feeding your baby while rocking them or walking around, singing or playing with them or playing white noise or background music to them (Australian Breastfeeding Association, 2017).
8. You might want to try feeding in a quiet room, away from distractions, as some babies are so keen to be involved that they limit their feeds (Gonzalez, 2014).
What can I do if I’ve tried everything but my baby still won’t breastfeed?
One of the key things to consider is maintaining your milk supply. You might need to consider expressing, either by hand or with a pump. You can find more information about expressing and storing your milk here.
Another consideration is making sure your baby is getting enough milk. How might you know how much milk your baby is getting, you might ask. The answer lies in their dirty and wet nappies. You can expect six wet nappies in 24 hours if your baby is over a week old (UNICEF, 2016). If you’re unsure, it’s best to ask for support from your health visitor, GP or NCT breastfeeding counsellor.
In the short term, you might need to look at alternative ways to feed your baby if you think they’re not getting enough milk. A newborn baby needs to be fed regularly and parents can use syringe or cup feeding as an alternative to a bottle in the early days (Flint et al, 2016; NHS, 2016).
If you decide to use a bottle, it might be helpful to feed with plenty of skin-to-skin contact (UNICEF, 2018). Gently offering the bottle to your baby by tickling their top lip, waiting for the wide-open gape might also help mimic a breastfeed (UNICEF, 2019). That can support the transition back to the breast.
Taking frequent breaks during the bottle feed, and perhaps swapping sides, can be helpful (UNICEF 2018). Continuing to have skin-to-skin time with your baby and allowing them access to the breast will help this. It’ll also be a bonding and calming experience for you both.
How can I deal with the stress of my baby refusing to breastfeed?
When a newborn refuses the breast, or an older baby goes through a nursing strike, it can be very upsetting for both you and your baby. You’re definitely not alone in struggling with the emotions of breastfeeding problems. So here are some tips that might help:
- Try to take time to enjoy plenty of extra cuddles and quiet time together.
- Many mums find a ‘babymoon’ helpful for allowing their baby access to the breast in a non-pressurised way. A babymoon means spending some hours together in a relaxed setting, such as lying down snuggling in bed. This can allow you to enjoy your baby without worrying about feeding.
- For older babies, some mums find that having a bath with their baby or bringing their baby into bed with them helps their baby to latch.
- Try to find some support from other mums and trained breastfeeding supporters. Chatting with other people about this can help to unburden the stresses and worries you might be feeling. Breast refusal is not uncommon and you might find that chatting to someone who understands is invaluable while you’re struggling.
- For many mums, time and patience can help the situation. Your baby’s instincts and behaviour can change and develop, especially in the early days.
- If you’re struggling, do contact the NCT Infant Feeding Line and speak to a breastfeeding counsellor. They’ll listen, offer you information and will support you to find your own path.
This page was last reviewed in August 2019.
NCT supports all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.
National Breastfeeding Line (government funded): 0300 100 021.
NHS information on mastitis.
Best Beginnings - Bump to Breastfeeding DVD Chapter 7 'Overcoming Challenges'.
Healthtalkonline.org: Managing Breastfeeding – dealing with difficult times.
Australian for Breastfeeding Association (2017) Breast refusal. https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/breast-refusal [Accessed 22nd February 2019]
BellyBelly. (2016) Breast refusal – 13 tips for a baby that refuses the breast.
https://www.bellybelly.com.au/breastfeeding/breast-refusal/ [Accessed 22nd February 2019]
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Mohrbacher N. (2013) Is your formerly nursing baby refusing to breastfeed? Breastfeeding Reporter Blog. Available at http://www.nancymohrbacher.com/articles/2013/1/26/is-your-formerly-nursing-baby-refusing-to-breastfeed.html?rq=refusing [Accessed 1st August 2019]
NICE. (2017) Breastfeeding problems. National Institute for health and Care Excellence, Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/breastfeeding-problems#!scenario [Accessed 1st August 2019]
Pitman T, Bennett H. (2008) 0-1 year: nursing strikes; breastfeeding while baby’s falling asleep may help end a nursing strike. Today’s Parent. 7:137.
Public Health England. (ND) Breastfeeding challenges. NHS, Start 4 life. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/start4life/baby/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-challenges/reflux/ [Accessed 1st August 2019]
UNICEF. (2016) Breastfeeding checklist for mothers – How can I tell that breastfeeding is going well? UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative. Available at https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/10/mothers_breastfeeding_checklist.pdf [Accessed 1st August 2019]
UNICEF. (2018) Skin-to-skin contact. Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/baby-friendly-resources/guidance-for-health-professionals/implementing-the-baby-friendly-standards/further-guidance-on-implementing-the-standards/skin-to-skin-contact/ [Accessed 1st August 2019]
UNICEF. (2019) Responsive bottle feeding. Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2019/04/Infant-formula-and-responsive-bottle-feeding.pdf [Accessed 1st August 2019]