As a breastfeeding parent, you probably spend a lot of time monitoring how much and how often your baby is eating. You also probably notice pretty quickly when your baby is eating less frequently or drinking less milk than normal.

When your baby suddenly changes their nursing patterns it’s important to figure out why, and what you can do to fix it, right away. Read on to find out what a nursing strike is and what to do if your baby is having one.

So, what’s a nursing strike? A nursing strike — or “breastfeeding strike” — is defined as a period of time when a baby who has been nursing well suddenly refuses to breastfeed. They usually don’t start this behavior until they’re least 3 months old and more aware of the world around them.

Babies who are entering a nursing strike typically refuse the breast but seem unhappy, fussy and displeased by not nursing. While your baby probably sometimes becomes distracted at the breast, pulling away or rooting in the middle of a feed is not indicative of a nursing strike, rather they’re just distracted. It’s the refusal to nurse for any duration that indicates a nursing strike.

Sometimes, a nursing strike is mistaken for a sign that a baby is ready to wean. This is unlikely as babies rarely self-wean before 2 years of age, and when they do, they almost always do so by gradually reducing the duration and frequency of nursing sessions rather than stopping abruptly.

Babies can enter a nursing strike for a variety of reasons that are both physical and emotional. Some causes could be:

  • congestion or an earache that makes nursing uncomfortable
  • a sore throat, or a cut or an ulcer in their mouth that makes nursing uncomfortable
  • an illness such as hand, foot, and mouth disease that impacts their mouth and makes nursing uncomfortable
  • teething and experiencing sore gums
  • frustration caused by a low milk supply where the flow of milk is too slow or an overabundance of milk where the flow is too fast
  • frustration caused by a change in the taste of the milk due to hormonal or diet changes
  • an experience where they were startled while nursing by a loud noise or by mom yelling out after a bite
  • sensing that you are stressed, angry, or otherwise out of sorts and not focused on nursing
  • a change of personal care products that make you smell different
  • distractions caused by an overstimulating environment

While many of these causes can’t be avoided, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on for your baby that may affect breastfeeding success.

While a nursing strike can be stressful for both you and your baby, there are many tactics you can use to help a baby return to the breast successfully. When managing a nursing strike, there are two primary challenges to manage: maintaining your supply and ensuring that your baby is fed.

When a baby is taking in less milk than normal you’ll need to express milk to maintain your supply. You can do so either by pumping or hand expressing. Expressing your milk will let your body know that the milk is still needed and help you continue to produce what your baby will need once they’ve begun breastfeeding again.

When it comes to ensuring a baby is fed during a nursing strike, consider pumping and bottle feeding or cup feeding. While it may be stressful to try to get your baby to take a bottle or cup, it’s important to ensure they are taking in enough calories to remain hydrated and well fed until they return to the breast.

Once you’ve ensured that your baby and your supply are attended too, you can work on getting your baby back to the breast. If you’re worried that your baby has an illness or other physical discomforts that are leading to the nursing strike, a visit to your pediatrician can help get them on the path to better health and better nursing.

After attempting to figure out what is causing the strike and working to eliminate any illnesses or other issues, there are a number of ways you can encourage your baby to nurse:

  • Lie skin to skin with your baby and gently offer your breast.
  • Change positions, including different holds and different sides.
  • Nurse in a dim or dark room to eliminate distraction.
  • Offer your breast while sitting together in a warm bath.
  • Try to stay relaxed and work to eliminate stress around nursing sessions.
  • Spend positive, connecting time together when not nursing.
  • Offer lots of positive reinforcement to successful breastfeeding.

Most nursing strikes last from a few days to a week in duration. If your baby is refusing to eat no matter how you try to feed them (breast, bottle or cup), is losing weight, is not peeing or pooping as frequently as they normally do, or is displaying any other signs that have you concerned, talk to your baby’s pediatrician right away.

If your baby is nursing less frequently than they have in the past, but is eating via a bottle or cup, and is clearly healthy and happy, you can rest assured that their nursing strike is not adversely affecting their overall health.

Nursing strikes can be frustrating for both you and your baby and can be caused by a variety of physical or emotional circumstances. A nursing strike doesn’t mean that you need to introduce formula or that your breastfeeding relationship is ending.

After a few days and with a little extra coaxing and support, you and your baby will likely be back to nursing like normal!