Breastfeeding strikes and breast reluctance

Why is my baby now unwilling to breastfeed?

Sometimes babies who have been breastfeeding normally suddenly refuse to latch or they take a few sucks and then stop but remain hungry. This is known as a “breastfeeding or nursing strike”. It may happen if the baby has been scared by a loud noise while breastfeeding or if the mother has jumped involuntarily because the baby bit her. Breastfeeding reluctance also results in a baby who is unwilling to breastfeed but happens more gradually. Both breastfeeding strikes and breast reluctance may happen if the mother has a low or reduced milk supply, if the baby is frequently supplemented, or if there is frequent or extended separation from the mother.

A) Describing breastfeeding strikes and breast reluctance

Some babies, after a period of effective breastfeeding, will no longer wish to do so. Even though they are hungry, they may refuse to latch at all or will only take a few sucks. They may quickly become upset when repeatedly offered the breast. This can end with the permanent rejection of the breast or the baby can return to normal breastfeeding. 

There are a number of ways to manage this behaviour. If these babies do not receive milk supplements, they will not grow well.

A breastfeeding strike, also known as a nursing strike, is when the baby suddenly rejects the breast over a matter of hours. Breastfeeding strikes are not that common.

Breast reluctance is when the baby becomes more unwilling to breastfeed over a number of days and weeks. Once the baby is one year old, this behaviour can also be normal self-weaningBreast reluctance is more common if there is a low milk supply.

B) Causes of breastfeeding strikes and breast reluctance

A breastfeeding strike or breast reluctance may occur when:

 A breastfeeding strike can also happen when:

  • A baby has been scared by a loud noise while breastfeeding.
  • A baby has had a tongue-tie cut.
  • A mother has jumped involuntarily because the baby bit or hurt her.
  • The mother has started a new medication that changes the taste of her milk.

C) Behaviours that are not breastfeeding strikes or breast reluctance

1) Normal behaviours

The following normal behaviours are not breast reluctance:

  • Quick feeds due to:
    • The normal decrease in the length of feeds as babies grow.
    • The mother having a large milk supply
    • The mother having a low milk supply
  • The baby being distractible at the breast
  • The baby’s being upset if forced to breastfeed when not hungry

2) Latching problems

Breastfeeding strikes and breast reluctance are different from latching problems:

  • Breastfeeding strikes and breast reluctance: The babies are no longer interested in the breast.
  • Latching problems: They are happy to try to latch until they get frustrated.

3) Sick babies

Babies who become sick may breastfeed more frequently or less, depending on the nature of the problem. Once healthy, they often resume normal breastfeeding. This is a different situation from a breastfeeding strike or breast reluctance.

If your baby is suddenly breastfeeding more or less and there are other major changes in the baby’s behaviour, please see your health-care providers to ensure that the baby is not sick.

4) Self weaning

If allowed to, babies will gradually stop breastfeeding. It is relatively rare in babies less than a year old and usually happens at between two and four years old. If the baby has decided to wean, it is unlikely that the baby will resume breastfeeding.