Milk Strike: When Your Baby Refuses to Eat and What to Do
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Milk Strike: When Your Baby Refuses to Eat and What to Do

Learn to navigate your little one’s milk strike or nursing strike so you'll hopefully be back to your breastfeeding routine soon.

Published March 28, 2023

by Casey Williams

Registered Nurse and IBCLC
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A milk strike, or a nursing or breastfeeding strike, can start out of nowhere. It’s alarming when your champion little breastfeeder will no longer nurse completely out of the blue. Nursing strikes can feel overwhelming, but rest assured; these strikes usually do not last long, so don’t throw in the towel on your breastfeeding goals yet. There are ways to navigate your little one’s milk strike that will hopefully have you back to your breastfeeding routine before you know it.

What is a Milk Strike?

A milk strike is an abrupt refusal to nurse by the breastfeeding infant. It can last anywhere from one breastfeeding session to a few days. Either way, when your little one refuses to breastfeed, there is usually a related cause.1,2

Possible Milk Strike Causes

There are many possible causes for a baby to suddenly go on a milk strike. Some take quick fixes, while others might take time to work through.

Illness or Pain

Your little one might be feeling uncomfortable. This could be because of an illness or something causing them pain—a stuffy nose, unsettled stomach, new tooth, ear infection, etc. Any illness or injury can make your baby feel unwell, and they may experience so much discomfort that breastfeeding becomes unappealing or too much work.2

Overactive Letdown

You might feel like your baby is breastfeeding well after birth, and suddenly, you notice a change when your milk comes in. This could be due to having an overactive or forceful letdown. This means as your baby begins to feed, they are overwhelmed by the amount of milk they receive all at once, which can lead to breast refusal.1

Decrease in Milk Supply

A decrease in your milk supply can occur for several reasons, such as being under stress or not eating enough yourself. But if your little one receives less milk than they are used to at the breast, they may become frustrated and refuse to nurse.2,5

Mom Has a New Smell

Newborns have a powerful sense of smell. And your baby knows your scent and even your breastmilk’s smell. If there is a change in your smell, your little one may not recognize or like it, leading to breast refusal and a milk strike. Changes in your smell could come from a new lotion, perfume, laundry soap, or deodorant.1,4

Distractions

If you are breastfeeding your baby in a location with loud noises or many distractions, they may decide those things are more interesting than breastfeeding.2

Stress

If your little one is feeling stressed, they may refuse to breastfeed. This stress could be from a change in routine or even after the first time returning to the breast after a “biting incident,” which caused a strong reaction from you.2

What Can You Do To Help?

Although a nursing strike can be stressful for a breastfeeding mom, there are ways to navigate this challenging experience.3

Keep Trying

When feeding time rolls around again, try putting your baby to your breast to feed. If it becomes stressful for you and baby, do not force it; stop, and try again next feed. Some find success when breastfeeding when the baby is more sleepy. This could be as they fall asleep, do a dream feed, or even right when they wake up.

Find a Calm Breastfeeding Spot

Find a peaceful, calm, quiet location that is free of distractions if your baby is on a milk strike. This calm area may even help you relax too, mom. A baby can pick up on their mother’s stress, and having both mom and baby relaxed can help.

Pump

If your baby refuses to breastfeed, ensure you are protecting your supply. This means pumping. As stated above, try putting your baby to your breast for each feeding. If they are still refusing, make sure to pump to remove milk. Removing milk, even with pumping, will signal to your body that milk still needs to be made.

Try New Positions

Change things up and try new breastfeeding positions during a milk strike. You never know what position might be most comfortable for your baby. A simple change might make them feel relaxed and ready to breastfeed again.

Lots of Cuddles and Snuggles

Try skin-to-skin and lots of cuddles to continue to facilitate bonding with your baby.

Address Any Medical Concerns

If your little one is ill or is experiencing a condition that causes discomfort, speak with your baby’s medical team to address these concerns.

Reach Out for Help

Contact your healthcare team and lactation consultant for guidance and support. Navigating a nursing strike can be stressful, and having a support team to give advice and be helpful is essential.

Will This Affect My Baby?

You and your little one are a breastfeeding team navigating this milk strike together. And together, you might be trying new things, such as new breastfeeding positions, but the most crucial thing during a nursing strike is that your baby is still being fed. This might look different and is not what your baby is used to. This could mean introducing a bottle or other method of feeding. Ensure you monitor whether your little one still has wet diapers. Consult your baby’s healthcare team if the milk strike continues to ensure your baby is still gaining weight appropriately and address any concerns that might be causing it.

What Will Happen to My Milk Supply?

If your baby is not removing milk by breastfeeding, it is essential to take action to protect your supply. The amount of milk removed from your breasts signals to your body how much milk needs to be produced. Simply put, it’s a supply-and-demand process. If you are not pumping or removing milk from your breasts while your baby is on “strike,” you risk seeing a decrease in your milk supply.2

When your baby first starts a milk strike, it can be alarming. With patience and a little detective work, your baby can return to breastfeeding in no time. Always contact your health care and lactation team for guidance and additional support.

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Casey Williams Registered Nurse and IBCLC
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Casey Williams is a registered nurse and IBCLC. Her expertise is in pediatrics and lactation. Casey has worked in all different areas in pediatrics, including inpatient and outpatient roles. While… Read more

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