My baby won’t take the breast and is completely refusing to eat. What do I do? I see cases like these occasionally and I feel like they’re some of my most challenging (and most rewarding) cases. If your infant under 6 months is displaying aversion to feeding, we need to figure out why. Aversion to feeding means screaming or crying when even offered the breast, taking very little from the breast, refusing to eat, or needing to be fed while moving or while drowsy/asleep. This is not a temporary nursing strike where baby refuses the breast/bottle for a few days because of periods returning, mom going back to work, teething, or illness, etc. A nursing strike that isn’t managed well can turn into a feeding aversion, though. The behaviors seen in baby are much more extreme for a true aversion. Here is my list of the most common culprits to a true breast aversion in order of most common cause in my experience.
👅Tongue tie/oral motor: Is there a visible tongue or lip tie? One of my biggest red flags for tongue tie is reflux and shutting down during breastfeeding (sleepy baby on the breast, popping on and off, refusing the breast and preferring the bottle but then shutting down on the bottle). Some babies with tongue or lip tie do fine for the first few months as they’re compensating from a full milk supply. The aversion comes around 3-4 months when moms supply regulates and is dictated by the efficiency and responsibility of baby removing milk from the breast. If there is no tie, what’s the baby’s sucking pattern like? Do they have an immature or disorganized suck? How is their latch? Are they possibly taking in too much air with poor latch causing discomfort? Would a different bottle nipple shape or pacing be more appropriate? Do they struggle at the breast but take a bottle occasionally? Address the ties and do oral motor exercises to strengthen and coordinate the system and the refusal goes away.
🥛Intolerances/Allergy: This can look similar to reflux, but there is often a component of bowel issues involved as well (constipation with uncomfortable bowel movements, diarrhea, or mucousy/foamy poops). Look for patterns with formula changes- sometimes parents will say one formula works better than another, and if we look at the formula ingredients we might understand which ingredients baby is sensitive to. Babies who’s digestive tracts are uncomfortable don’t want to eat. They learn really quickly to associate feeding with pain, so they shut down on feeding. Finding the allergens clears the gut and makes feeding pleasant again.
🤮Reflux: Easiest culprit to blame and mask with medication. To be honest, putting baby on reflux meds rarely makes a difference. The medication may mask the pain but won’t actually take the reflux away. Don’t get me wrong, for some babies it can make a big difference, but let’s get to the root of the reflux. And medications should always be a last resort. Is the baby spitting up (doesn’t always happen with reflux)? Is there pain associated with the spit up? Is it projectile and frequent? Does the refusal stop once the bottle is removed or are there signs of discomfort even after the bottle is removed? Wanting small, frequent feedings is my classic tell tale of reflux. Continually swallowing helps keep acid in the stomach and reduces the pain. True reflux is usually caused by food allergy/intolerance, gut issues, or tongue tie. Address the issue, resolve the reflux.
🥵Aspiration: Milk going into the lungs instead of to the stomach. Is the baby stressed during feeding? Do their nostrils flare and their body get stiff or arch? Do the cough and choke throughout the feeding and not just during let down? Do they have noising breathing or feeding? Do you need to be super careful with position change/flow rate changes? Do they have a respiratory history (not just pneumonia- does the baby take long periods to get over any illness)? Further assessment by a speech pathologist is always needed.
🤯Behavioral: I’m not sure if “behavioral” is the correct word, but it’s the best way to describe it. The number one concern of parents is feeding the baby. When feeding isn’t going well, it causes extreme stress, which can cause us as parents to do extreme things to try to fix the problem. It’s easy to spiral out when you’ve tried everything and it’s not working out of stress and desperation (or not being able to figure out the why in the first place). Occasionally the reason for the refusal is not longer there, but it was so stressful in the moment, the panic that it could happen again sets in and perpetuates the problem unnecessarily. Some times the root issue is still there, but you’ve compensated and it’s causing a behavioral manifestation in both you and the baby. Are you just trying to push past baby’s stress signs due to your own stress with trying to get baby fed? Are you just trying a bunch of different things to see what works? Are you trying to feed based off of old information? You are just trying to do your best and are scared for baby, but sometimes the compensatory things we do can cause more problems or cause it to persist. Having an outside observer come in to help see what’s going on can help bring everyone back to baseline.
When trying to figure out which of these culprits is the cause of the aversion, know that you don’t have to figure it out alone. Finding a trained lactation consultant (🙋🏽♀️) can help ask the right questions to get to the root of the issue and get feeding back on track.