Breastfeeding can be a struggle and a joy. It's certainly not the easiest thing you'll ever do. I'm fortunate to have been privileged enough to exclusively breastfeed my children, but that's not always the case. There can be exterior influences guiding that ability that are beyond your control. However, if your baby won't breastfeed, sometimes it's something emotional or anatomical that can be supported and repaired. How to get your baby to breastfeed becomes the hurdle and the riddle, like so much of parenting. Lactation consultants can be a big help, but not everyone has equal access to their services, exacerbating the situation.
There are many complex issues that might cause your child to go on a nursing strike or refuse to breastfeed. It could be that you've recently started supplementing with a bottle and they're now identifying that resource as preferable, they might have a physiological issue like tongue-tie or breathing issue, or they might be worried off the breast because of a forceful let-down or slow flowing breast. Getting your baby to nurse when your baby won't breastfeed is an exercise in patience and also an exercise in trial and error. It might take several tweaks to your routine, like how and where you feed your baby, or seeing a lactation consultant before you can fully address the issue.
According to La Leche League International, babies who refuse to breastfeed at all, or go on strike, are far more common than we have been led to believe. When I had my first child, I thought everyone could breastfeed and that not doing so was a choice. I was naive and a bit stupid, but that's what my community and my cohort of mothers in my very crunchy pregnancy group was telling me. I could blame my youthful exuberance to breastfeed, and my strict adherence to a specific doctrine, but it was privilege and a misrepresentation of the facts.
Therefore, when my son was born and definitely did not take to breastfeeding right away, I was floored. With the help of not only a lactation consultant, but also a pediatrician, a crew of nurses, and a crap ton of luck, we figured it out, and he went on to breastfeed like a champ until he was nearly 2 years old. I'll admit, I had no idea what I was doing — thank goodness there are experts.
When I began writing this article, I spoke with certified lactation consultant and doula, Emilia Kuznatski, IBCLC, to learn how to get your baby to breastfeed if they're refusing. She tells Romper that it's possibly one of the more frustrating problems because babies can't just tell you what's in their head — you have to do a lot of detective work.
Kuznatski notes that often you think your baby is refusing to breastfeed, but they're just changing their schedule. "Newborns and young infants feed a lot, like eight to 12 times a day. As your baby gets older, they'll start spacing out their feedings. If you're still getting at least six wet diapers, and they're exclusively breastfeeding, this is probably what's up."
Other than that, Kuznatski notes that if it's a problem like tongue tie, or swallowing, or a flow issue, it really needs to be seen and dealt with by a professional. The same goes for when they're first born — you probably need some extra help. Also consider if you've changed something about the situation. Are you wearing perfume and you normally don't? Did you change your soap? (She notes this can actually linger on the skin and change the taste of the breast. Who knew?) Are you not well hydrated and your milk is taking a longer time to flow?
If they've been breastfeeding fine and now your baby won't breastfeed, there are some tips. "If it's nipple confusion, or it seems like they prefer a bottle, try to express some milk and rub it over your nipple, reminding them of the soothing quality of breastfeeding." She says this can be enhanced by skin to skin contact, rocking, and trying out different holds that aren't easily accomplished while bottle feeding. If a baby comes to associate those warm feelings with breastfeeding, they'll likely take to it much easier.
"If you're engorged, and the milk is flowing too quickly, causing your baby to stop," Kuznatski says, "pump off some milk before you start nursing. It will slow your flow, and make it easier for baby to swallow."
She also adds that it's paramount not to keep trying at each feed until you're both angry and irritated. Step back, calm your baby, rub their cheek, their back, even sing to them. Get back in a headspace where you can try again. "Try walking and nursing. It can help change the language of the situation, confusing your baby enough that they latch on almost in surprise." I would be hard pressed not to say "tricked ya" to my baby after this. Or, I'd just say it, because they're a baby, and they don't understand.
That's not the only way to trick them, either. She says you can offer your baby a soother, your knuckle, or a bottle, and when they start to suckle, pop it out and pop in your nipple. She says it sounds ridiculous, but it can work.
"Try expressing milk directly onto their lips as they're near your nipple but refuse to open up. The smell and taste trigger the feeding instinct, and often, they'll open out of reflex." Honestly, if it'd been a while since I nursed, my baby was getting a face full if they were near my exposed nipple. There was no stopping it.
As ever, though, if switching strategies isn't working, talk to your pediatrician and a lactation consultant. They can guide you through this tricky time. Remember, breastfeeding is hard work, maybe the hardest, and sometimes it takes a village.
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