What Is a Nursing Strike?

Mother holding baby on shoulder

You and your baby have developed a good, solid breastfeeding routine, when suddenly baby simply won't nurse. Baby is hungry and upset. She is cranky and wants to eat, but refuses. What is going on? Is it time to wean? What should you do? Unfortunately, you have a nursing strike on your hands; a nursing strike is when an older baby with an established breastfeeding pattern suddenly refuses the breast entirely.

Many parents confuse a nursing strike with self-weaning. Very few babies under the age of one will wean themselves. Weaning is typically a slow process that is comfortable for both mother and baby, not a sudden refusal to breastfeed. A nursing strike is baby telling you that something is wrong. There are some common causes, and with an adjustment or two, you will be able to put an end to the nursing strike and bring baby back to breastfeeding.

Baby crying with baby bottles

Common Causes of Nursing Strikes

  • A stuffy nose or ear infection : For a stuffy nose, try saline drops or an aspirator at mealtimes. Contact your doctor's office if you suspect an ear infection.

  • An infection such as hand-foot-and-mouth disease or thrush: Thrush (in both your baby and yourself) must be treated by a doctor. Hand-foot-and-mouth disease typically runs its course, but contact your doctor.

  • Sore gums from teething: Try to bring baby some relief with counter pressure by allowing them to chew on soft frozen fruit in a teething bag, a chilled teething ring or another favorite method.

  • You smell "wrong" to your baby : Have you changed your soap, lotion, detergent, shampoo, or other product recently? Try changing back if your new and unfamiliar scent might be the issue.

  • Your milk may taste different: Have you been eating a lot of spicy food or a lot of anything in particular? If you have made a dietary change, try lessening the amount of the new food you are eating, or add back some of what you cut out. Hormonal changes can also cause a change in your milk's taste. Also, the imminent return of your period or a new pregnancy can also change your milk's taste.

  • Family stress, like moving, house guests, a new job, a new daily schedule: Give baby extra attention, increase cuddling and skin-to-skin contact. Consider a carrying sling to give baby extra reassurance that everything is OK and to allow you to multitask (doing simple chores, visiting with guests, helping other children with homework).

  • Baby was frightened while nursing: Maybe you yelped when baby bit you in a recent nursing session or an older sibling came screaming into the room? Did the dog start ferociously barking at something outside? Try the same techniques as listed for family stress. Baby needs extra reassuring and comforting.

  • Baby is overly impatient with your naturally slow letdown : Try starting milk letdown (manually or with a pump) before offering baby the breast.

Baby in high chair crying

Other Ideas

  • Try offering baby the breast when he or she is very sleepy. He or she may be less likely to notice a different smell, taste, soreness, or any distractions.

  • Try skin-on-skin nursing in a quiet, darkened room.

  • Pump! Pumping will help keep up your milk supply, and also provides milk that you can store in the refrigerator to use for feeding baby with a bottle or cup.

  • Contact your local La Leche League for support in continuing to breastfeed, find a lactation consultant at the local hospital or lactation center for help, or visit your doctor.