Heard of nursing strikes by babies? My son is now well into his toddler-hood. He is a good eater but of all the things that stress me out about his growing days is when he decides to be picky about his food. The first hunger strike when he was a baby baffled me. How could an infant who survived only on breast milk, decide not to consume anything at all. I tore my hair out and proclaimed myself to be the worst mother on this planet. Then just as it had arrived, it went away too and he was more than happy to go back to nursing like nothing had ever happened.
Nursing strikes in babies, and toddlers do occur. They happen for many reasons, can last from a day or two to weeks and there’s little you can do to pull them out of it. When they are ready they go back to normal again.
However this doesn’t mean we moms or caregivers can afford to sit around twiddling our thumbs in the midst of a hunger strike. It is important to ensure they don’t lose out on vital nutrition.
What is a hunger strike?
A hunger strike in general terms means a situation where an individual is refusing to consume any food or means of nutrition. It is usually put in place in order to protest for something and is common in negotiations.
Surely our children are too young to dabble in politics!
A baby sometimes abruptly refuses to feed at the breast or consume any milk. Research says that it is common for babies to undergo this anywhere between their 3rd to 9th month. Toddlers may display this behaviour in their first and second years too.
Trouble begins when nursing mothers mistake this nursing strike for an interest of the child to wean.
How can one differentiate between weaning and a nursing strike? Weaning is a gradual process, where a baby or toddler refuses to feed at the breast over a prolonged period of time. It could take weeks or months. Nursing strikes are of smaller duration and most importantly, happen abruptly.
What are the reasons for a nursing strike?
It is difficult to pinpoint a single reason for a nursing strike, it may be a combination of these:
Growing interest in the world around them – as their eyesight develops babies get really interested to observe the world around them. They seem completely disinterested in the mother’s breast and so drop feeds.
Teething – This is the biggest reason for a change in babies eating/ nursing patterns. And gums maybe sore, months in advance of the actual episode. It is common for babies to go on a nursing strike then.
A reaction from mom when baby bit her – when babies suddenly have new teeth in their mouth a bite on the nipple is common. However it can be very painful for the mother and it may happen that she lets out a scream or pushes away. This reaction can be a bit overwhelming for babies and has been known to lead to nursing strikes.
Separation from the mother – Typically the 4 to 6 months after birth is when most mothers return to work. This change in their environment – mother is missing or moving from breast to bottle may cause them to be unsettled.
Stress – babies do feel stress. A change in their physical milestones (learning to crawl or turn over), environment, weather, drop in attention due to presence of siblings can cause them to respond by refusing to feed.
Change in breastfeeding dynamics – after the early days of breastfeeding there is a certain stability that comes in with regards to the breastfeeding dynamics. But with time there are changes like delayed let-down or in the flavour of milk. A change in medications that the mother consumes or a change in her calorie intake may also lead to change in her milk supply or flavour. Nursing after strenuous activity can also lead to baby refusing to feed.
Change in the way the baby perceives the mother due to new bath and body products, which makes her smell different.
Why is a nursing strike bad news?
When babies refuse to feed it is a worrying situation for the caregiver to be in. Babies and toddlers need consistent and good quality nourishment as their bodies and brains are growing at a rapid rate. Care should be taken to ensure that there is no serious nutrient deprivation.
In babies below the age of 6 months, when strikes are due to factors such as illness it is a vicious cycle because it is only breast milk that the child consumes. Breast milk as has been researched adapts itself to the baby’s needs and in times of illness can actually pass on valuable anti-bodies to the child.
Nursing strike can also lead to some consequences for the mother. When breastfeeding stops abruptly she may be faced with engorgement and painful breasts. If not checked these can lead to painful mastitis or plugged ducts which may need medical intervention.
If the nursing strike spreads over a longer period of time it may also lead to low supply as the mother’s body gets a signal to produce less milk due to lowered demand.
As you can see, a nursing strike is a serious matter which needs intervention for both mother and baby.
How to survive a nursing strike?
Depending on the reason why the baby is refusing to feed you may need to try many things to reignite their interest.
Do keep in mind that a nursing strike does not mean your baby has lost interest in feeding. So try not to do something drastic like introduce solids too early or wean off completely. Breast milk or formula should be the primary nutrition till the baby is 1 year old.
Here are some ideas:
Keep offering – Do offer milk to the baby frequently. This could be direct breastfeeding or even feeding expressed milk (see point 12 below) Give the reluctant child a taste of what he is missing. Squirting a few drops of breast milk into the babies mouth or face helps them remember that they need to feed.
Feed them in a dull room with no distractions – when they are refusing to feed because they are distracted, the best thing to do is make the room boring. Sit facing a wall or under a nursing cover.
Dream feeding – This is feeding the baby when they are sleepy or sleeping. You can even feed lying down, contrary to popular belief, feeding lying down is safe if practiced correctly.
Change the breastfeeding position – Try a different hold. If cradle doesn’t work then try the football hold.
Find remedies to soothe teething – when the nursing strike is due to teething, identify ways in which your baby will find soothing. Do visit my friend Ophira’s blog here on natural ways to soothe teething babies.
Control your reflexes if baby bites – bites when a teething baby feeds are common, so take a break, and come back again. Also, try telling your baby calmly and rationally, like you would an adult, that they should not bite. They do understand more than what we give them credit for.
Work on managing symptoms of cold or blocked nose so that baby can feed if their discomfort is caused due to illness. Nasal saline drops for infants are perfectly safe if used under the right medical guidelines.
Skin to skin time – Nothing works better for the nursing relationship than skin to skin time with mommy. It also works to tell the mother’s body that there is a baby in her life and he needs to be fed and hence she needs to produce milk.
Cook with milk – If you are worried about the right nutrients going to baby during a nursing strike, then improvise and use milk in other foods. You can use pumped or expressed breast milk to mix into porridge or a fruit smoothie for baby. Similarly if a baby is on formula milk then you can add some formula milk too. However do remember that you cannot heat or boil both breast milk or formula milk, so add it just before you are offering it to baby. This is a really great way to send all the nutrients that are rich in mother’s milk to baby, even when they may not be too keen on consuming plain milk.
Don’t forget this will only work in cases where the child is older than 6 months and consuming other weaning foods too.
Wear your baby – baby wearing or holding baby in a baby carrier is a great way for them to find comfort from whatever it is that is bothering them. It also allows nursing in a carrier. Read my blog post on baby-wearing and its benefits here.
Make yourself comfortable – pump or express breast milk. When babies are not feeding as per their regular schedule the mother’s breasts fail to empty. So the moment you feel that baby has dropped a feed or two then indulge in pumping or hand expression to remove the milk. This milk can be stored and frozen for use later. You can use this to either feed your baby with a spoon or use it in his solid food preparation.
Nursing strikes do occur in every baby’s life. The nursing mother should make herself aware about the reasons so as not to confuse it for a sign of readiness to wean off breast milk. Every baby is different and so are the reasons why they behave in the way they do. Identifying the cause of the nursing strike will help the mother devise a strategy to deal with them.