What to Do When Your Baby Won't Breastfeed

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Breastfeeding is a wonderful and rewarding experience, but it is not without its difficulties. Newborns can have problems latching on and learning to breastfeed, and older babies who have been breastfeeding well for weeks or months can suddenly stop.

Both of these situations are upsetting, but be patient and ask for help if you need it. Talk to your pediatrician or lactation consultant for assistance and support. Most of the time you can find a solution and still breastfeed.

Why Newborns Refuse to Breastfeed

A new baby may have trouble learning to breastfeed. Here are some of the breastfeeding problems you may experience with a newborn.

Poor or Inefficient Latch

The way your baby’s mouth attaches to your breast when she's breastfeeding is called the latch. If your newborn is not latching on well, then her suck will not be effective, and she won't be able to remove the milk from your breast. As your baby gets hungrier and more frustrated, it becomes more and more difficult to breastfeed, and your baby may begin to refuse the breast altogether.

To prevent breastfeeding issues from a poor latch, get help with the latch right from the start. When your baby is latching on to your breast correctly, she will take your entire nipple and a good portion of your areola, the dark area around your nipple, into her mouth.

Your Baby Is Premature

You may not be able to breastfeed if your baby is born prematurely and needs to stay in the hospital. Then, once your little one can breastfeed, it may take some time to get it started. Small babies have small mouths, so your preemie may not be able to latch on to your breast until he gets a little bigger.

Also, preemies have less energy for breastfeeding so it may seem he won't breastfeed, but he just might not be able to tolerate it yet. In the meantime, you can give your premature baby pumped breast milk until he's big enough and has enough energy to nurse at your breast. 

You Have Flat or Inverted Nipples

Most babies can breastfeed well even on flat or inverted nipples. But, in some cases, it's hard for the baby to latch onto the breast. If your newborn is not latching on and you think it's because of your nipples, there are many ways to correct flat or inverted nipples successfully and make it possible to breastfeed.

Stimulating your nipples or using a breast pump before you breastfeed can help to draw them out and make it easier for your baby to latch on.

Your Baby Has a Birth Injury or Disability

If your baby is in pain from a broken shoulder or bruises from the delivery process, he may not be able to get comfortable to breastfeed. And, newborns with neurological or physical disabilities at birth may not be able to breastfeed, or they may refuse the breast.

Once your baby is diagnosed with an injury or disability, you and the health care team work together to make the accommodations that your child needs to get started with breastfeeding. 

There's a Delay in Breast Milk Production

For first-time moms or mothers with certain health conditions, it could take a few days for the breast milk to come in. This delay can be frustrating for you and your newborn. And when a newborn gets frustrated, he may begin to refuse the breast. But, don't get discouraged. Put the baby to breast as often as possible and if you have to supplement with formula during this time, don't feel guilty.

Your Baby Is Sleepy

Newborns tend to be very sleepy in general, but the birth process and the medications that you were given during the delivery can cause even more drowsiness than normal. Jaundice or other illnesses can have a similar effect.

And, of course, if your baby is sleeping, he's not breastfeeding. To wake your little one up, you can rub her feet or back, unwrap her, or change her diaper right before or during the feeding. Continue to try to put the baby to breast as often as possible. Thankfully, the sleepiness is usually temporary.

Why Older Babies Refuse to Breastfeed

Older babies who have been breastfeeding well for a while will sometimes stop nursing out of the blue. This sudden halt is commonly known as a “nursing strike." Here are the reasons an older child may refuse to breastfeed. 

  • A cold: Breastfeeding a sick baby can be a challenge. If your child is not feeling well, or he has a stuffy nose, it may be difficult for him to breastfeed and breathe at the same time.
  • Distraction: As they grow, infants become more curious about the world around them. Older children are more easily distracted, and sometimes there are just too many other interesting things they rather do than breastfeed.
  • Fast feeder: Older babies can breastfeed much faster than younger ones. An older child can often get a large quantity of breast milk in just a few minutes. A baby that nurses a few minutes and then stops may have had enough.
  • Low supply: If your not making as much breast milk as you once were, your baby may get frustrated with breastfeeding and stop.
  • Pain: If your baby is teething, he has an ear infection, or he has thrush in his mouth, it may be painful for him to breastfeed. If your child is colicky, he may be uncomfortable from gas, bloating, and digestive issues which can also interfere with breastfeeding.
  • Taste: Hormonal changes from the return of your period, a new pregnancy, or starting birth control pills can affect the flavor of your breast milk. Smoking cigarettes before you breastfeed or eating certain foods can also change the taste of your milk. If your child doesn't like the way your milk tastes, he may not want to breastfeed.

What to Do If Your Baby Isn't Breastfeeding

Even though it's hard, try not to worry. Stress can reduce the supply of breast milk. Here are some ideas to help remedy the issue:

  • Breastfeed your child in a quiet, dark area away from distractions.
  • Consult your doctor, a breastfeeding specialist, or a breastfeeding group in your local area for help and support. Bring your baby to the doctor to check for any health problems.
  • Hand express your breast milk or pump to maintain your milk supply. Give your baby your expressed breast milk or infant formula in a bottle while continuing to offer the breast.
  • Make sure your newborn is latching on to your breast the right way. Try to use a different breastfeeding position.
  • Offer the breast frequently but don't force your child to breastfeed. If breastfeeding becomes a negative experience for your baby, it may be harder to bring him or her back to the breast.
  • Try cup feeding, finger feeding, or a nursing supplementer device (supplemental nursing system) to provide your child with breast milk if you don't want to use a bottle. Or, formula feed while you're working on getting your child back to the breast.
5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ineffective Latch-on or Sucking. Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. Stanford Children's Health

  2. Possible Problems: Inverted, Flat, or Pierced Nipples. Breastfeeding. Healthychildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics

  3. Breastfeeding Mealtime Milestones. Healthychildlren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics

  4. Breastfeeding and teething. La Leche League GB

  5. Nursing strikes. La Leche League International

Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.
  • Cadwell, Karin, Turner-Maffei, Cynthia, O'Connor, Barbara, Cadwell Blair, Anna, Arnold, Lois D.W., and Blair Elyse M. Maternal and Infant Assessment for Breastfeeding and Human Lactation A Guide for the Practitioner Second Edition. Jones and Bartlett Publishers. 2006.
  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby. 2011.
  • Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

By Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Donna Murray, RN, BSN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers University and is a current member of Sigma Theta Tau, the Honor Society of Nursing.