Babies on (Nursing) Strike!
I love your column! The only consolation about our current baby woes is that I finally have a question worth writing to you about. My almost-7-month-old baby has been steadfastly refusing to nurse for a week now. Seven days, not a single suck.
As background, we’ve had a stellar nursing relationship since about 5 days after she was born, when she got good at latching. My supply has been great, she eats A TON, and she’s big and healthy and thriving in every way. I went back to work at 8 weeks, found a pumping routine that worked for me and made enough for her, and she’s never had any trouble switching between boob and bottle. The only hiccups came when I would eat curry for lunch and she’d refuse to nurse that night – no problem, give her a bottle, and no more Indian food once I figured it out. More recently, with the advent of teeth, she bit me a few times, I cried out, she got upset. But we recovered from those times. We coped with the “distracted phase” by only nursing in her bedroom with the door closed. When she refused to nurse a week ago, I chalked it up to Thai food for lunch and thought nothing of it, until she refused the next morning too . . . and the next night . . . and every single day since then. I keep offering her the breast, but the closest she’s come is to sort of half-curiously mouth at it and move on, like it was a subpar toy. Most of the time if I try to get her into nursing position (any nursing position, up to and including some ridiculous acrobatics), she arches away and fusses.
I talked to a lactation consultant (“I can tell you for sure she’s not self-weaning at that age. Let her comfort nurse and try to reduce stress in your life.”) and our pediatrician (“huh, she’s healthy, it doesn’t look like thrush. probably nothing to worry about.”) but still feel lost and desperate. Other factors in play: she may well be teething (drool, lots of chewing), we still think thrush might be an issue (persistent diaper rash, I have some stabby boob pain, although who knows if that’s related to the pumping extravaganza of the past week?), and she may be low-grade sick (has been slightly fussier than normal all week, now is running a fever). Also, she’s super independent and has never been much for comfort-nursing. She’s also really unimpressed by solid foods so far – as in, less than half a teaspoon of puree per day – so doesn’t get any significant calories except from breast milk. I haven’t changed diet, medication, soap etc. I do have a whole pile of other stress in my life, but nothing that has really changed in the last few weeks.
So far I’ve been pumping up a storm, trying to feed her and maintain my supply in the hopes that she’ll change her mind. But it’s not a sustainable routine for the long term, and not what I signed up for as an excited-to-breastfeed mom. Also, owwwww overpumped boobs ow.
So my questions are 1) How long do we keep trying? Everything I’ve read on nursing strikes promises that they’ll resolve in 2 – 4 days. Could she really have weaned herself before 7 months, and before she likes to eat anything else? 2) What else can we do to “keep trying”? Are there sneaky tricks to get a baby back on the breast? Should we do the whole crazy thrush treatment process even though the doc doesn’t buy that she has thrush? 3) If she really is done breastfeeding forever, what can I do to make the quitting process less . . . miserable? The prospect of cutting back on pumpings and just watching my supply dry up sounds awful. I really liked having that special time with her, and thought we’d still have it for at least a few more months. I’m amazed at how completely depressed I feel now that she’s rejecting it. Seriously, I’ve been crying and losing sleep over it. Help!
Thanks so much,
A flummoxed pumper
Argh! Nursing strikes. I SHAKE MY FIST AT THEE, NURSING STRIKES!
From way over here, it sounds teething-related. Since your pede ruled out thrush (stabby boob pain sounds more like a possible plugged duct from the switch from nursing-baby-to-all-pumping — thrush is a hot itchy feeling, like athletes’ foot in your nipples) and I’m assuming checked for an ear infection, I’d say teething. Drooling, diaper rash, fussiness, low-grade fever…we’ve gotten all that (AND MORE!) just from good old-fashioned nasty teething. And yes, I KNOW all the books and websites will tell you that “teething doesn’t cause fever.” Whatever, books and websites.
It’s possible that with all the drooling and pain from teething caused nursing to become uncomfortable — maybe add in a sore throat or mild ear infection that cleared up by the time your pede saw her, maybe she’s got a little cold or allergy congestion — and she’s yet to forget about it and give nursing another go. It’s very unlikely that spicy foods in your diet had anything to do with the initial rejection, for the record, so if you’re holding on to any residual curry/Thai food guilt, you can let that one go. (I know, I know! I just did That Thing where I said X doesn’t cause Y when I’m sure a zillion people can anecdotally disagree, just like I disagree with the teething/illness connection. AM HYPOCRITE.) And the truth is sometimes you just can’t figure out what causes/caused a nursing strike. Since there isn’t a supply/letdown problem or a big appetite for solids, teething or some other illness/physical discomfort was/is probably the cause.
But no matter what the cause, what do you DO about it? It sounds like you’ve probably read everything Google can offer up about nursing strikes and encouraging a baby back to the breast. Wait it out, babywear/co-sleep, do skin-to-skin, offer when she’s especially sleepy to combat that independent, distracted streak, and offer, offer and offer some more. Recognize that she’s probably not going to root and ask for it, even though I know the rejection is painful. (More on that in a second.) Maybe a nipple shield or alternative feeding device? Pump a little first to get your letdown happening and the milk…uh…dripping…so she’ll get milk right from the start, even if she’s not really sucking? Commenters who have survived a week-long nursing strike? Any additional suggestions?
Okay, so moving onto “No babies self-wean before a year! You’re just misinterpreting a developmental stage! You just secretly WANT to wean and are telling yourself it’s baby-led to make yourself feel better.” I have nursed two babies who weaned before a year. And no, neither case was completely baby-led, but more like the end result to a bunch of weird-to-crappy circumstances that were out of our control. But it’s still not fair to say that *I* chose to wean either of them, or that I really had any choice at all.
Noah and I never had it “easy,” but I still nursed as long as I possibly could before my crap supply (and his patience for it) finally completely gave out at five-and-a-half months. Ezra (my second son), on the other hand, was a more emotionally difficult weaning, because things HAD been so great! Just perfect! I conquered everything that went “wrong” the first time and I WAS WINNING AT BREASTFEEDING.
Then the biting started. I did everything — EVERYTHING — the books and websites and my lactation consultant told me to do. He bit to the point of leaving me black-and-blue, so I swear I wasn’t being a baby about some light little lovebites. It HURT and made me dread nursing. He did not care one bit about being removed from the breast and told “no biting!”, or if he bit again and I ended the feeding — the only loser in that scenario was my supply. He started eating more solids and crawling and cruising. He got really distracted and wouldn’t stay latched on for more than a minute or two at a time, no matter where I nursed or how quiet I managed to make the room. (Which wasn’t always possible anyway, what with a three-year-old banshee running around during the day.) I kept repeating to myself that HE WASN’T WEANING, because HE WASN’T A YEAR, and totally believed all the things I read about just needing to power through this “developmental phase” and we’d be back on track to nursing for many more months.
He nursed for the last time sometime in the 10-1/2 month range. I was quietly devastated, but mentally, I just couldn’t keep doing it. I couldn’t keep dealing with not knowing how the next feeding would be received — would he reject me outright again? bite me? take forever and a day to focus on even getting an ounce or two and then I would need to pump anyway and give him a bottle and what was I supposed to do with Noah during this whole extended production? But I didn’t want to “give up” or “fail” so I kept trying, especially since I was soooooo upset already about the possibly of weaning that I couldn’t fathom how terrible I would feel once he actually, you know, weaned.
And I won’t lie: It didn’t feel good at first, once I stopped directly offering the breast. Because BAM. That was it. Over and done. Everything you describe, oh my God, YES. I was so disappointed and sad and stinging from the rejection — it was so EASY for him! Look, he doesn’t even miss it at all! What the HELL, child?
But then it…stopped feeling like that. I don’t think I’ve thought about the weaning thing in ages, until today! It just…was what it was, you know? I glad I did everything I could — just like you are. I gave him plenty of time and opportunity to change his mind — just like you are. I no longer second-guess or blame myself. I moved on and focused on new non-boob-focused ways to bond with my babies and to enjoy the benefits that came from NOT being the primary source of food and tied to the pump multiple times a day.
And I’m not sure how much longer Ike will nurse — my supply took a nosedive once he started solids and I’m doing everything I can to boost it back up, while ALSO dealing with the super-distracted phase and his desire to be moving around ALL THE TIME. And pumping/teas/supplements just aren’t cutting it the way they used to. (At least he isn’t a biter!) I always thought the newborn days were the toughest for breastfeeding — I never realized how difficult it can be later in the game too, after you think everything is established and hunky-dory.
Obviously, I hope your story ends the way you want it to — in fact, I hope in the time between you sending in your letter and this column, your daughter sprouted those pesky teeth and/or just got over the mysterious strike and is nursing again JUST TO MAKE YOU FEEL SILLY.
BUT. If she isn’t, and if this strike does turn into a permanent resignation from nursing, and if you decide that pumping is the pits and you want to stop that too: IT WILL BE OKAY. It really, really will. You did nothing wrong. You are a good mama and you gave her a wonderful start and it’s okay if food/formula take over from here. Sometimes it just…happens and we don’t know why. Sometimes we do know why but all the sage advice and wisdom and resources in the universe just aren’t enough to make it work.
And please know that as huge and heavy as this is hanging on you now…it won’t always feel like that. As your daughter grows you will gain an appreciation for how BIG her life is, and that however long you nursed her for is actually only a tiny blip in the big picture. Even if you nursed her well into toddlerhood, it would STILL just be one small part of your lifelong role as her mother. And you’ll be able to treasure that one small part without guilt and what-ifs, because it was lovely while it lasted, but everything that came after is just as wonderful.
Photo credit: ThinkstockPublished March 2, 2012. Last updated July 18, 2017.