Dealing with breast refusal

By Sara Keli

Just when you think you have the breastfeeding thing down pat, all of a sudden your baby starts refusing the breast. The good news is that in most cases, breast refusal is temporary. But in the meantime, how do you deal with it?

What is breast refusal?

Breast refusal is when a breastfed baby refuses the breast when offered. It can happen for any number of reasons, such as:

  • baby has a cold and feeding from the breast is difficult with a congested nose
  • issues such as a low supply or a fast let down
  • baby is overtired 
  • a change in baby’s feeding pattern (eg. going from three-hourly feeds to four-hourly feeds)
  • baby is having difficulty with latching onto the breast
  • the taste of your milk has changed because of hormonal changes or medication
  • baby has developed a preference for one breast over the other so is refusing one side only.

As we said above, in most cases, breast refusal is temporary and may only last one or two feeds. 

Stay relaxed

Until you have had a baby refuse the breast, you really can’t appreciate how stressful it is. But the most important thing to do is to stay relaxed. If you are tense and stressed, that will flow to baby, so stay relaxed yourself and create a calm environment for feeding. 

Try giving your baby a bath and feeding afterwards, when they are relaxed, or even try feeding in a dark room. If you have someone who can stay with your baby, go for a walk around the block to calm yourself down before trying again. 

Change positions

If you usually feed baby while you are sitting down, try lying down or a different hold. If baby has a cold and that is what is causing the breast refusal, they might be struggling to breathe while feeding. A position such as lying down can also help to relax you more.

If the position you are in is not working, don’t force it. Stop, do something else for a little while, and then try again later. 

Use a breast pump to keep up your supply

If baby really isn’t feeding much, you might want to pull out the breast pump and get pumping – then, when baby returns to their normal feeding habits, your milk supply will be steady. The bonus is that you will also have milk stored for future use. 

The best breast pumps are efficient and easy. If you don’t have a breast pump, you can buy a simple manual pump to get you through the breast refusal phase your baby is in.

Ensure baby is getting enough fluid

Have you checked if your baby is having their normal amount of wet nappies? If they are, then there may be a simple reason behind the breast refusal, such as the baby simply extending the time between their feeds. If you’re concerned, you can try feeding some expressed breast milk or formula in a bottle, or using a syringe to feed them some breast milk or dropping it into their open moth. 

If baby is not having enough wet nappies (5-8 very wet nappies per day) then you should seek medical advice immediately, as your baby may be dehydrated from the breast refusal.

Seek help

Breast refusal may be a one-off event or it may be ongoing. If you have any concerns at any time you should seek help from your GP, child health nurse or the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). The ABA can help with breastfeeding latching tips and other breastfeeding tips for newborns, and offer a 24/7 counselling phone line – call 1800 686 268.  

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