How to Get Through a Nursing Strike

baby crying breastfeeding

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Your little one has always been a happy breastfed baby, but one evening you try to nurse before bed, and they will have nothing to do with it. They begin screaming as soon as you offer them the breast. This happens at the next feeding, and the one after that, too.

You have no idea what’s going on. Are they weaning? Could it happen this suddenly? Either way, your stress levels are through the roof, and you have no idea what to do.

If something like this is happening to you, your baby is most likely having a nursing strike and isn’t weaning. Nursing strikes are actually very common. As a lactation consultant, they are one of the most frequent calls for help that I receive.

Nursing strikes are very stressful for parents and their babies because they seem to come out of the blue, and it’s hard to have faith that they will pass. But most nursing strikes do pass in time, and there are several tried-and-true techniques you can try to “woo” your baby back to the breast.

Nursing Strike

Nursing strikes are characterized by a sudden, abrupt refusal to breastfeed. This usually catches a breastfeeding parent off-guard. In most cases, your baby has been happy to breastfeed up until this point, and you may not know why they are refusing right now. Babies may try to breastfeed and then turn away, as if distracted. They may appear unhappy or uninterested in breastfeeding.

They may also seem upset and may cry when you try to offer the breast. Oftentimes, each time you offer, they become more upset. Nursing strikes can happen at any age, and usually happen when your baby is young, with an average of about 5 months. However, nursing strikes can happen to older babies, and even toddlers.

Nursing strikes usually resolve in a few days or a week. In my experience, some nursing strikes may last up to two weeks, or even a little longer, but that’s rare.

Nursing Strikes Vs. True Weaning

It’s very important to understand that nursing strikes are not the same as true weaning. If your baby was consistently nursing and growing well in your milk, and then they suddenly refuse, they are most likely having a nursing strike, and are not weaning.

As Fataneh M. Ziari, MD, a pediatrician at Sesame Care, describes it, when a baby is weaning, the process will be bumpier, and not a sudden cessation. “In weaning, a baby wants to breastfeed but intermittently stops and starts again,” she says.

Neela Sethi, MD, a pediatrician, certified lactation educator, and MAM baby ambassador, explains that true weaning also involves a disinterest in breastfeeding, but that it’s part of a slower and more steady process.

“Weaning babies are still interested in feeding but less often and for shorter periods of time than before,” says Dr. Sethi. “Babies on a strike won’t feed at all with no warning at all.”

What Causes Nursing Strikes

Nursing strikes can happen for any number of reasons, and are usually caused by a physical or circumstantial stressor that your baby is experiencing. The hard part is that your baby can’t tell you what is wrong!

Usually, with a little digging, you can figure out why your baby has started to refuse the breast. Knowing the cause can often help you come up with the solutions to the problem.

Often, the causes of a nursing strike are multiple. In fact, it’s often the times when there is more than one trigger that a baby starts to refuse the breast. Think about it: the more things that are stressing you out at once, the more likely you are to have an extreme reaction. The same is true of babies.

Melanie Silverman, IBCLC, a lactation consultant and Chief Clinical Officer at Pacify, says that before looking for other causes, you should rule out any serious illnesses or injuries, as sometimes those can cause your baby to abruptly stop breastfeeding.

“Parents who have reason to believe their baby or toddler is very sick should contact their pediatricians immediately,” Silverman recommends.

According to Silverman, some of the most common triggers of nursing strikes include teething, overactive letdown (usually caused by an oversupply of breastmilk), or an environment that is different or especially stimulating for your baby. A medication you are taking might be lowering your milk supply, which could cause your baby to refuse the breast, Silverman adds.

Dr. Sethi says that many babies will refuse to breastfeed when they are not feeling well, like when they are coming down with a cold or an ear infection. Some babies are sensitive to subtle changes, such as when you change your soap, deodorant, or smell differently in some way. Babies also react strongly to stress, such as when they’ve recently been separated from you.

Another reason why your baby may refuse the breast could be from a drop in your milk supply, Dr. Sethi notes. This can happen when you ovulate and can happen when you are pregnant (even if you don’t know it yet!). Stress in your own life can affect your baby as well as cause a drop in your milk supply, says Dr. Sethi. Your milk supply can also drop if you are a pumping parent and begin pumping less often.

The causes of nursing strikes can vary depending on the age of your baby. “In newborns or younger infants, it is mostly due to learning how to nurse or GERD,” Dr. Ziari says. “In older babies, it is usually due to pain or discomfort like teething or earache.”

In my lactation practice, I’ve noticed that nursing strikes often coincide with times of change and transition in a family’s life and routine, like when someone has switched jobs, or when a family is moving. Additionally, nursing strikes often happen after a baby has bitten the breast, usually because of teething discomfort, and the breastfeeding parent has reacted strongly, often screaming and accidentally scaring the baby.

How to Keep Up Your Milk Supply During a Nursing Strike

One of the biggest concerns a breastfeeding parent has when a nursing strike happens is how to keep up their milk supply, and how to make sure that their baby is fed.

In some cases, a baby will nurse some of the time during the strike, but refuse the breast at other times. Some babies will refuse the breast for all feedings. Either way, for any feeding that your baby doesn’t breastfeed, you will need to pump or hand express your breastmilk.

As Silverman describes it, pumping during a nursing strike is of utmost importance, because otherwise, you risk decreasing your milk supply. “Breast milk production is a carefully calculated supply-and-demand physiologic process,” she says. “If you stop nursing, and don't hand express or pump, you risk reducing your milk supply and developing plugged ducts or mastitis.” 

The other reason you need to pump is because your baby will still need to eat during the nursing strike, and it’s preferable that you feed them your pumped milk. Dr. Sethi recommends spoon-feeding your expressed milk to your baby if possible. She says that if you need to bottle feed your baby, you should consider something called "paced bottle feeding."

“This means giving the milk slowly so that it mimics breastfeeding as much as possible and doesn’t cause nipple confusion,” says Dr. Sethi.

Techniques for Getting Your Baby Back to Breastfeeding

Most babies will come back to breastfeeding within a few days, but some will be a little more difficult and take a bit longer. It’s important to understand that babies usually want to be breastfeeding, but either something is bothering them (like a tooth coming through, a stuffy nose, or an upset stomach) or something that happened during breastfeeding distressed them and they need time to reset.

Understanding the cause can help you solve the problem. If your baby is teething, for example, you can give them something soothing to suck on (like a frozen teether) before they come to the breast. If they have a stuffy nose, you can try clearing it before breastfeeding with a bulb syringe. Talk to your pediatrician about more options, including baby-safe medication you can offer for pain or discomfort.

If your baby is having a nursing strike for other reasons, such as a reaction to a stressful situation, working on your own stress, sticking to a routine when possible, and simply talking calmly to your baby about what is happening can be helpful. Your baby may not understand what words you are saying, but they will pick up on your tone and demeanor.

Regardless of the cause, it’s important that you exercise as much patience as possible as you are dealing with a nursing strike, says Silverman. “As stressful as it may be, it's important to stay very calm,” she says.

Silverman says that in general, you want to give your baby as much special attention as possible during this time so that they can begin to feel more comfortable at the breast. Some of her suggestions include spending time skin-to-skin with your baby, trying new nursing positions, and offering the breast to your baby or toddler when they are calmer or drowsy. Nursing in a darkened room while relaxing music plays can really help too, says Silverman.

Dr. Sethi suggests pumping or expressing a little milk in anticipation of breastfeeding so that your breasts are full and ready to let down as soon as your baby latches on. “This will help to give your baby immediate gratification the second he/she latches,” she says.

She also suggests making sure to set aside some time in your day and your life to give your baby extra attention. “No schedule. No to-do list. No dishes, cooking, or cleaning. No guilt. Just you and your baby are all that matters,” says Dr. Sethi.

Some of the suggestions that have worked best for the parents I’ve helped include offering your baby the breast in a completely different environment, such as outside, or even in the bathtub (you will need to do this carefully and it’s best to have a helper nearby for safety).

One of the best times to offer the breast to your baby is when they are asleep, or just waking up. Usually, they forget what they were upset about when they are in that half-awake state.

Finally, it’s very important that you never force breastfeeding during a nursing strike. If you offer the breast and your baby cries or seems upset, don’t push it. This usually backfires and makes them more upset. Try to soothe them, or have someone else soothe them for you, and wait for a time when they are calmer.

A Word from Verywell

When babies have nursing strikes, one of the first things parents do is blame themselves. They think there was something they did wrong. They assume they don’t have enough milk, or that their milk tastes bad or isn’t nutritious enough. They often take it personally, assuming that if their baby suddenly hates breastfeeding, they must hate them too.

Please remember that you didn’t do anything wrong to cause your baby to have a nursing strike, and your baby still loves you. Again, it’s really common for babies to have nursing strikes. They almost always resolve in due time. You just have to have a little patience, and a whole lot of faith in the process.

If you are feeling unsure of what to do, or if your nursing strike isn’t resolving after a few days or a week, contact your pediatrician or a lactation consultant for help and advice.

2 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. Nayyeri F, Raji F, Haghnazarian E, Shariat M, Dalili H. Frequency of “Nursing Strike” among 6-Month-Old Infants, at East Tehran Health Center and Contributing Factors. Journal of Family Reproductive Health. 2015;9(3):137-140.

  2. Kids Health website. Breastfeeding FAQs: Some Common Concerns. Updated February 1, 2015.

Additional Reading

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.