The Nursing Strike

E has been on a nursing strike. It seems to be almost over now, but it was not fun while it lasted. A nursing strike, for those not familiar, is when a child suddenly refuses to nurse. It’s often confused with self-weaning, but children rarely self-wean before about 2 years, and generally do so gradually. A nursing strike can occur in response to bottles being offered, often with fast-flowing teats. Baby learns to prefer the fast pace of the bottle over the breast, and if he knows the bottle will come regardless he can suddenly refuse the breast. Or, more often, baby has had a shock when feeding which puts him off for a period of time. Maybe something hurts, from teething, an ear infection, or an injury. Maybe he bit mum and mum let out a yell of pain which shocked baby. Maybe baby was nursing when he slipped and bumped onto the floor. The association of the unpleasant thing with nursing is too strong, and he refuses to nurse for a while in case the unpleasant thing happens again.

It can be heartbreaking, and frustrating, and scary. You don’t know when they are going to nurse again. You offer to feed but they turn away, or they cry as if in pain. You start to worry they are not getting enough calories or fluids, especially if they are not well established on solids. You have to express milk to keep your supply going and prevent engorgement. You spend your day(s) expressing, offering expressed milk, offering as much food and water as you feel you should, worrying about how long it’s going to continue, how they are going to get to sleep, what you’re going to do during the night, how you are ever going to leave the house.

For us, I think two things started the strike. Firstly, and mainly, E is teething. She’s getting her incisors at the moment and was obviously in pain. She would try to nurse, but pull off and cry. I gave her some Bonjela and when that didn’t work I tried Calpol, but she still refused. She would turn away and scream in pain whenever I offered. That evening and most of the night she was crying, or sobbing in her sleep. She usually nurses to sleep, so there was a lot of rocking and shushing and soothing noises when she refused to nurse. At 4am I actually took her downstairs and put her in the sling for a bit. It worked to get her to sleep but I couldn’t transfer her down to the bed without waking her, so she slept the rest of the night on my chest. It was like newborn baby E all over again!

The other thing which may have contributed was when E bit me a few times at bedtime. The first time I removed her from the boob and said “No, no biting please”. The next three times I put her down and walked away for a second. Each time I walked away she cried. I suspect the combined trauma of mummy walking away when she bit me, and (mostly) the pain from teething caused her to refuse all night, and all the next day, and some of the next night too.

The following day she appeared to be pain-free and happy, but outright refused to nurse. If I offered she would turn her head away, arch her back, cry, or all three. I kept water and raisins in reach at all times, and she snacked well and ate great at mealtimes. She  slept in the sling (preventing me from sleeping when she slept which was my plan after the horrendous night) and I pumped every 4 hours. I offered her some expressed milk or some cows milk occasionally, which she took but not enthusiastically.

It was a good thing that M was at nursery, and that I was house bound due to the chicken pox anyway. We just stayed in and played and I tried not to worry too much, but there was always that scary little voice at the back of my head saying “what if she’s still doing this in a week? How long do you bother offering for?”. Not helped by a mum telling me her children both went through nursing strikes that lasted between 4 and 10 days!

I tried to think of all the useful things I could be doing. I ran a deep, warm bath and relaxed with E. We had fun, but she showed no interest in my boobs. Then I turned the heating up and sat on the floor with no top on while E played with toys. By late afternoon she started to show some interest. She even looked at my boobs and signed <<milk>> (more on that in another post). Then she came over and put her mouth on my nipple. She did that a few times, just testing the water, before going back to play. Then eventually she had a little drink, then a big drink. She happily settled herself in my lap and fed, looking at me and signing <<milk>>. I was overjoyed! I beamed at her and told her how clever she was, wasn’t the milk lovely and not hurting her? See, mummy milk is nice after all!

But then she refused again all afternoon. I went out singing, and when I came back she was asleep in the sling on Tom. We put her in bed and she fussed for a while, turning away form me again. Thankfully she was too sleepy to complain much and fed back to sleep. She’s been fine ever since.

Only she is biting a little. Not hard, but biting for a reaction. Little bites while looking at me. I’m being firm with taking her away from the milk when she does it, but I’m scared to put her down and walk away in case she refuses again. It’s a fine balance!

This is all very new territory for me. M never bit me, ever. Not once. Neither did M ever refuse to nurse! She was on bottles of expressed milk from about 12 weeks when I went back to singing, and then more frequently at 7 months when I went back to work. In fact, her nursery requested faster flowing bottles because “it was taking forever to give one to her”! I complied, but thankfully M didn’t care. She happily switched back and forth form breast to bottle. Once, I turned up to collect her a little early and they had just warmed her bottle up. M saw me coming, but she had also seen the bottle, so she climbed into my lap and drank the bottle, then she had a further feed from me! Girl has always liked her milk.


A large portion of my day was spent expressing, then cleaning and drying my pump. I was fed up after just one day, and I have a new respect for mums who do this all the time!


Trying some skin to skin (and chocolate) to see if it would help.


Watching episodes of Castle, sleeping baby on my chest, cup of tea in hand. Not too bad, actually.


About mamathegeek

I am a mother to M and E, who are junior school aged children. I am a working mother, alternatively science geek and hippy. I work, sing, garden, photograph and try not to keep a tidy house. This blog is all about my experiences as a parent; contained within is everything from the very first days (nappies, poop, boobies, slings) to school days and beyond.
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