There are many reasons why a baby may refuse to feed. The cause can depend on your baby's stage of development or health.
Whatever the reason, having a baby who doesn't want to feed and who screams and turns away from your breast is very upsetting. However, be reassured, there are some things you can do.
Help your baby get the milk
One of the most common reasons babies won’t feed is because the milk isn’t flowing. Baby sucks at your breast expecting your breast to let-down and nothing happens. Or it happens more slowly than your baby is used to.
Helping your let-down reflex to work is key to this.
Once your baby is feeding, try using breast compressions to help get more let-downs and your milk to flow faster.
If your baby has been used to the instant and fast flow from a bottle, they may not want to attach if your milk isn’t coming quickly. Again, triggering the let-down may help. You may also like to try feeding any expressed milk (or formula) feeds using a cup rather than a bottle.
Help make breastfeeding easier
Feed baby as soon as they show hunger cues.
Limit bottle use to encourage baby to suck at the breast.
If you use a dummy, walking, singing and rocking while baby sucks the dummy may gradually soothe them so you can gently put your baby to the breast while removing the dummy.
If your baby is very hungry, you may need to start with a small amount of expressed breastmilk, e.g. 30 ml, then gently replace it with the breast.
Some mums use a nipple shield to begin a feed, slipping it off quickly and putting baby back to the breast once the milk is flowing and they are sucking happily.
Express some milk into your baby's open mouth to remind them what the breast is for.
Try to stay calm
When your baby is fussy or refusing to feed, try to remain calm and patient, handling your baby gently. If you are both on edge, try taking deep breaths similar to what you may have used during labour or when trying to be calm or meditate.
Deep breathing helps slow your own breathing and make it more regular which can help calm everyone. Concentrate on staying relaxed, use soothing music, rock your baby gently or carry them around. This relaxation will help your milk flow readily so your baby will get milk once they latch on.
If your baby is quite unsettled, cross or crying or if you are feeling angry and upset, you may find it helps to try again when you are both feeling calmer. In the meantime a cuddle or a game may distract your baby. A walk outside may relax you both. This is the time when your partner (or a friend or relative) may be able to step in and give you both a break.
Thankfully most breast refusal is temporary and it shouldn't be too long before your baby is again breastfeeding happily. Sometimes you may never find out why they refused.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association April 2022