How to Survive a Nursing Strike

[Note: Any time I use the word “milk” in this post, I’m referring to breast milk. Whenever I talk about a bottle, I mean a bottle of breast milk. I’m not trying to be down on people who use formula. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you read “bottle” as “a bottle of formula” everything still makes sense. However, we don’t use formula. I just want to be clear about what I mean, because breast milk is all we have around here to put into the baby’s bottle and therefore it is all that tends to come into my mind when talking about such things. Also, I hit my quota for using the word “breast.”]

Gather ‘round, everyone and I’ll tell you the story of the Great Nursing Strike of ’15.

It was back in October and Baby Z was a fussy little man. He had been going through another wonder week and seemed to be teething pretty fiercely (at least, he was drooling like a St. Bernard), so it wasn’t a shock that he might be having a rough time. What made it especially trying was that Z didn’t nurse at all from 10am until 1pm the following day.

We’ve never had a nursing strike like that before. Z previously had one lasting about 12 hours and I’d had the impression that we might have weathered a small one from MeToo once. In retrospect, that might have just been her not feeling terribly hungry one afternoon. This was the real deal.

Z would seem as though he wanted to nurse (he probably did, I suppose), and would eagerly get ready to, but then balk at actually latching on and taking milk. He’d be crying, his mother would be full of milk (painfully so, after a while), but Z just wouldn’t have it.

Now, don’t think that Z was starving. He was having real food in addition to breast milk so he had stuff to eat at mealtimes. Still, he usually nursed about eight times in a 24-hour span, and soon I could tell that in addition to all the other messes he had going on, he was hangry, as well.

The Wife tried everything she could think of. She showed Z videos of babies nursing. She tried to nurse him while he was sleeping, while he was in the bathtub, lying in bed, sitting in a chair, and while holding him like an infant instead of his usual positions. His big sisters pretended to nurse. The Wife was planning to go to a friend’s house to nurse her baby in front of Z.

What finally did the trick was the Wife putting peanut butter on her nipple. Once Z was enticed into actually putting the nipple in his mouth, the spell was broken and he was back to nursing.

(Yes, the Wife gave her permission for me to share that.)

Nursing strikes like this are not out of the ordinary. In fact, if a baby is going to have a nursing strike, it will often be when they’re between 6 and 12 months old (Z fell right in that range). During that time, babies are becoming much more aware of the world around them, so they go through periods when they are very sensitive. Your baby still wants milk but something has thrown him or her off stride. (In Z’s case, he was having a difficult day as I described above, plus he took a tumble while climbing around that seemed to have really spooked him — but since he wasn’t talking, it was hard to know exactly what his deal was.) The important thing to keep in mind is that this does not mean your baby is ready to wean.

If you are, like me, a dad and therefore largely a helpless spectator to this kind of event, there are some other things you should bear in mind.

A nursing strike essentially plays out as a crisis between mother and child. Mom is the subject of the strike, after all. This is bound to be accompanied by emotional turmoil. Even if a mom knows better she will probably feel rejected, especially if it is a lengthy strike. On top of that are worries that the baby is simply done with nursing for good or would rather take milk from a bottle instead of her. (This, my fellow dads, is why you shouldn’t be the one to suggest giving the baby a bottle. Let it be her idea. And be ready for her to burst into tears when the baby sucks the bottle down after refusing to nurse all day.  Not that my authority comes from firsthand experience.)  Finally, if she hasn’t nursed for a while and hasn’t expressed or pumped any milk out, she’s going to be sore. So be careful when you give her that reassuring hug, and watch your elbows the rest of the time.

Oh, and she will no doubt feel frustrated and helpless because she can’t fix this problem. You will certainly feel helpless since you can’t do squat to resolve it, either. But you can’t even nurse the baby when all is right with the world, so you just have to suck it up and try to provide support and comfort to the two parties directly involved.

One of the best ways to be comforting and supportive during this trial is to remind the mom of exactly what I wrote a few paragraphs back. Namely, that nursing strikes happen every now and again, and that she is not being rejected by her baby.  Tell her you love her.  Tell her you are proud of her.  Tell her you know it is not easy, that it takes a strong woman to nurse a baby.  Thank her for giving of herself to feed your child.  Tell her she is beautiful in her strength.

It’s worth repeating that a nursing strike does not mean your baby is through with nursing. Maybe your child is having mouth pain or a stopped up nose, or maybe there has been some distracting change in their environment. Whatever the exact cause, a nursing strike happens because something is wrong from the baby’s perspective. It is just a symptom of whatever the underlying problem is.

You’ll also need to comfort the baby, too. Your little one isn’t being difficult just for the heck of it. This might seem like a simple situation to an adult — if you want milk, just go ahead and have it! Keep in mind, though, that there are many things which seem obvious and easy to an adult that are incomprehensibly strong and complex to someone who is less than a year old (and still getting their brain’s functions sorted out). Your baby would tell you what’s wrong if they could understand and communicate it. Your baby would deal with the issue differently and express themselves differently if they had the capacity for it. Babies don’t enjoy a nursing strike any more than anyone else and need just as much help through it as everyone else involved.

By way of wrapping this up, let me leave you with some things to try if your baby is on a strike.

* Try nursing in a different position. If you two have a favorite position that you normally use, change it up. Try to nurse sitting up, lying down, or even standing if you can manage it. Hold them like newborn or have them sit up on your lap. Whatever you can think of.

* Change the environment. Do you typically nurse in the bedroom or living room? Go into the kitchen. If you normally have the TV on, turn it off (or vice versa). When your baby is having milk, is the environment usually quiet or is there background noise? Is it dark or bright? Well, whatever it is, make it different the next time you make an attempt to nurse.

* Try during a different time of day (or night). This is just a variation on changing the environment but it’s worth pointing out. Don’t worry about keeping to your regular feeding schedule; you can work on reestablishing that once the nursing strike is over. Also, babies can be more willing to nurse when they’re sleepy (or asleep).

* Provide some examples. When you’re ready to nurse show your kid some videos of babies at their mothers’ breast. If they don’t seem interested in emulating what they see on YouTube, do you have any friends who would come over and nurse their baby in front of yours? You might try nursing someone else in front of your baby, another one of your children or a friend’s. This might make your baby jealous (“that kid is eating my lunch!”) but maybe that’s the motivation they need to get back on track.

* Peanut butter on the nipple. Okay, it doesn’t have to be peanut butter. The idea here is to do something that will hopefully induce your baby to put the nipple in his or her mouth rather than turn away.

La Leche League has a FAQ and resources page devoted to the topic of nursing strikes, and there’s lots more information available elsewhere. We hope that you and your child never have to endure a nursing strike yourselves. If it happens though, just remember: it is normal and it will pass.