Having a baby who seems to hate breastfeeding can make you feel like the worst mom ever. After imagining quiet moments of holding your sweet baby close and peacefully nursing, a screaming, red-faced infant who wants nothing to do with your breasts can really shake your confidence.
When you’re in tears — again — because you know that your little cherub has to be hungry and is still crying but just won’t latch on, it can be almost impossible not to take it personally. It can feel like your baby is rejecting you as much as they are rejecting your boobs.
You are not alone. Many of us have been there at one point or another, up in the middle of night googling “baby hates breastfeeding” and eating ice cream straight from the carton.
Part of what makes the whole phenomenon so tricky is that it’s hard to know why your baby seems to despise breastfeeding. Because babies can’t tell us what the issue is (wouldn’t it be awesome if they could?), we’re left trying to piece it together ourselves.
No worries. Most instances of a baby fussing or rejecting the breast are temporary. In fact, in many cases, there is really nothing you need to do, and it will simply pass on its own. Sometimes, though, there are things you can do — and they can be total game-changers.
Babies fuss, cry, push away, or reject the breast for many different reasons — and sometimes for more than one reason at once — which is why it can be hard to pinpoint the cause.
But Sherlock Holmes has nothing on a determined parent when it comes to sleuthing out what is going on with their kids. You just need to know where to look.
Thankfully, there are patterns to look for that help you figure out what the heck is going on, and many correspond to the stage of development your baby is in.
Here’s a look at some issues you may face and what you can do about it — every step along the way.
Babies who are having trouble latching will often cry in frustration and may seem to turn away from the breast. Sometimes a baby who is trying to latch will seem to shake their head “no.”
In this case, they are honestly not expressing their rejection of you — they’re usually searching for the breast, so this is a good time to attempt to latch.
You know your baby has a good latch when their mouth is wide open and they have your entire nipple in their mouth. Most importantly, a good latch shouldn’t hurt.
A little gentle tugging is fine, but if you feel like your baby is chomping, biting, or generally decimating your nipple, it’s time to get a lactation consultant to take a look.
Not getting enough
Babies who are having trouble getting a full meal might unlatch and fuss or cry. They may also seem to “shut down” at the breast. Either way, if you have any suspicions that your baby isn’t getting enough to eat, you should speak to your doctor or a lactation consultant as soon as possible.
A lactation consultant can do a before and after “weighted feed” to find out exactly how much milk your baby is taking from your breast (incredible, huh?).
Once your milk supply is established, other signs that tell you whether your baby is getting enough is if they are gaining weight well overall and whether they are producing enough wet diapers (usually 5 to 6 a day) and dirty diapers (about 3 to 4 a day).
Fussy evenings and cluster feeding
During the first few months, it’s normal for your baby to have times where they fuss or cry, and often for no discernible reason (so frustrating!). Sometimes they do this at the breast. This behavior often happens in the evening, when babies are known to cluster their feeds together, nurse constantly, and fuss and cry between feedings.
Oversupply or fast flow
When your baby is having trouble managing your flow, they will often cry in protest. The milk may be coming out so quickly and abundantly — sometimes spraying down their throat — and they may not be able to coordinate breathing and suckling, which can make them quite upset.
If you think your baby is having trouble with your flow, try different positions. Leaning back while breastfeeding helps slow the flow. A more upright position makes it easier for the milk to go “down the hatch.”
You can also make sure your baby finishes one breast before starting another, as the flow tends to decrease as the breast is emptied.
Babies go through several growth spurts during their first 3 months (and after that too: sigh). During a growth spurt, your baby is extra hungry, and with that, extra cranky.
Rest assured, although it can feel like an eternity when you’re in it, growth spurts generally only last 1 to 2 days, or up to 3 to 4 days in some cases. This too shall pass.
It’s normal for babies to experience gas, and sometimes as they’re waiting for the gas to pass, they might not want to breastfeed. To make your baby more comfortable, you can try lying your them on their back and pedaling their legs.
You can also try burping your baby more often, massaging their belly, or carrying them “froggy-style” in a baby carrier to relieve gas and pressure.
Occasionally, a baby will have excessive gas, spit-ups that are projectile, or stools that seem explosive or streaked with blood. Although relatively rare, these are potential signs your baby is sensitive or allergic to something in your diet. Speak to your healthcare provider or lactation consultant about possible dietary changes.
Distracted or overtired
Starting at around 4 months, babies can get very distracted while breastfeeding. They have suddenly discovered the exciting world around them, and they don’t want to stop to eat as they are taking it all in.
Your baby is also apt to become overtired at this age, especially if they skip naps or had a poor night’s sleep. This can make them fussy at the breast too.
Try breastfeeding your baby in a dark room, nurse while your baby is half-asleep, or try nursing while walking or bouncing your baby.
When your baby’s teeth are erupting, breastfeeding usually provides comfort. But occasionally, they may not want anything in their mouth, including the breast, possibly because it exacerbates their pain.
You can try soothing their mouth before breastfeeding by allowing them to suck on a chilled teething toy or a cold cloth.
Occasionally, a baby will have a breastfeeding strike, where they reject the breast for several days in a row, or longer.
Nursing strikes can be caused by anything — from baby’s illness to mom’s stress levels (multiple studies, such as this one in 2015, have found cortisol, the stress hormone, in breastfed babies’ systems). Breastfeeding strikes are super stressful, but they almost always resolve within a few days.
Usually figuring out what is bothering your baby (e.g., teething, stress, illness) helps a ton. Then, “waiting it out,” and offering your breast when your baby is most relaxed or even half-asleep, can work wonders.
Some moms have found that breastfeeding right after bath time is the most surefire way of ending a breastfeeding strike.
Figuring out what is bothering your baby is a great first step, but if you aren’t sure what is causing your baby to hate breastfeeding, that’s okay too, because many of the solutions work for more than one cause.
Use different positions
Sometimes it’s all about getting your baby more comfortable to latch on and nurse. Varying positions and angles can help with latching, as well as oversupply and fast flow. Contact a lactation consultant or breastfeeding counselor if you need hands-on help.
Calm baby before feeding
One of the most vital things you can do is to calm your baby down before attempting to breastfeed. If you keep on trying while they are upset, it may only upset them more.
Before breastfeeding, try rocking, or letting your baby suck on a pacifier or your finger. Take them in a dark room or for a walk through the neighborhood. Sometimes rocking or walking your baby will help them burp or relieve gas.
Talk to a professional
If you suspect that your baby isn’t getting enough milk, or if you think they are getting too much and having issues with your flow, speak to your doctor or a lactation professional.
You can also discuss any concerns about your baby’s digestion, and possible changes to your diet that might help your baby feel more comfortable after eating. If you think your baby is teething, you can discuss over-the-counter remedies or other soothing solutions.
Go back to basics
Sometimes spending a day skin-to-skin, resting and relaxing with your baby — regardless of their age — can make your child calmer and happier at the breast. This can relax you too. Skin-to-skin is really lovely and also taps into your baby’s natural breastfeeding instincts.
When your baby literally pushes your breasts away (it happens!) or cries every time you place your nipple within an inch of their mouth, it can feel like a total gut punch.
These things happen to the best of us — up at 3 a.m. crying right along with our babies. The good news is that as heart-wrenching and awful as it feels right now, the “baby abhors my boobies” phase usually passes on its own. Promise.
That said, you are absolutely not meant to do this all on your own! Please reach out to a lactation specialist, a trusted healthcare provider, or a friend who has been there. They’ve heard it all, and they’re on hand to help you and want you to succeed.
Most of all, keep the faith. Having a baby who seemingly hates breastfeeding is not a reflection on how good a parent you are, or whether you have put enough effort into breastfeeding. You are an incredible parent, and everything is going to be just fine.
Wendy Wisner is a freelance writer and lactation consultant (IBCLC) whose work has appeared on/in The Washington Post, Family Circle, ELLE, ABC News, Parents Magazine, Scary Mommy, Babble, Fit Pregnancy, Brain Child Magazine, Lilith Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at wendywisner.com.