Breastfeeding Strikes: Why Babies refuse to nurse and tips to keep breastfeeding

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I have successfully breastfed my daughter, Jolene, for going on 2 years. On one side, exclusively.

baby gags and refuses to breastfeed

About three months after she was born my baby suddenly refused to nurse from my right breast. Actually, even worse, she gagged every time she tried! I was both worried and mortified as to what this could mean! Does it taste bad? Do I smell? Is my milk rotten!? No kidding, these thoughts went through my mind and I was nervous that she may have been harmed by something I’ve done, was it something I ate?

There are some theories about why babies refuse to nurse on one side or the other and also about gagging at the boob. There are a lot of concerns and questions about how to handle such dilemmas too. Like, do I need to supplement? Is my baby getting enough milk off just one breast? Did I do something to cause this?

Now, one year later my baby is still only nursing on one side. And we are both totally happy with it! So here’s what I’ve learned about breastfeeding on only one breast.

Nursing Strikes and Causes

First off, there’s an actual name for this! It’s called a nursing or breastfeeding strike and it means baby is refusing to nurse. Turns out, there are so many possible reasons for this! Below is just a short list of the most common reasons. I’ll let the medical article I’ve linked here address pain or medical conditions in case you think it might be the cause.

Reasons babies go on breastfeeding strikes:

  1. Pain while nursing. This could be from teething, ear infection, other short term conditions or even a problem with baby’s neck muscles, which I describe below.
  2. Too fast or too slow milk letdown. Too fast can cause choking and painful gas. Too slow causes frustration and tired mouth muscles!
  3. Milk changes. This could be due to mastitis or inflammation of the breast. I believe this one was the cause for us and I go into a lot more detail about it next.
  4. Ready to wean. This could happen anytime after a year of age, but weaning wouldn’t be a likely cause for a nursing strike at all before then.
  5. Negative experiences. This could be from recent injury or from a stressful environment at the time of breastfeeding like yelling or crying.
  6. Long separation or a change in the normal routine.

Again, this is not a complete list of every reason a baby may refuse to nurse, but these are the most common causes. One thing is for sure, if baby isn’t nursing, milk isn’t coming! And the body depends on this supply and demand function in order to know when to produce milk. If you’re concerned with a drop in your milk supply, enter your info here and I’ll send you my best tips for increasing your milk supply!

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When Breast Milk Changes

Okay, TMI maybe, but in sheer panic I instinctively tasted my own milk from the breast Jolene gagged at. It was so SALTY! I was like, I wouldn’t eat that either girl! But the milk from my left breast was sweet. Some opinions on the matter propose that the saltier side is just a sign that there are more minerals in that breast milk, but what I actually found from this medical study is that inflamed breasts tend to taste saltier and babies commonly reject that breast, even though there is no harm that can come to baby from milk from inflamed breasts, including breasts with mastitis.

Believe me, I researched this issue a ton! And discovered that usually the milk from inflamed breasts contains more sodium and other minerals and less lactose. Lactose gives breast milk the sweet taste it normally has, and that’s why inflamed breast milk would be saltier tasting. I recall experiencing discomfort and even mastitis more often on my right boob so I attributed the unpleasant, salty effect to this.

Maybe my breast milk would have returned to normal in breast, or maybe I would have continued to have inflammation and mastitis if I’d continued nursing on that side.

There are other times breast milk consistency or taste might change, but I won’t go into those details. However, one other reason for a baby refusing to nurse on one side deserves to be mentioned before I go on about my personal experience.

Torticollis and its Effect on Nursing

Another culprit that could explain why some babies refuse to breastfeed on one side is a condition known as torticollis. What is torticollis?  One article goes into great detail on the topic, but basically the baby’s neck muscles are injured or strained in the womb (typically) and causes them to hold their head/neck to one side or another once born. And it’s this injury that makes nursing uncomfortable for baby. Apparently, it is treatable though so if you suspect that as the underlying issue, there’s hope!

Signs Your Baby Has Torticollis

  • You notice baby struggles to turn head to one side or another
  • Pain is obvious when they move/turn their head in one direction
  • You can feel a lump in one side of their neck
  • Difficulty nursing on one side which also relates to the above symptoms

According to www.childrenshospital.org,  a physician should be notified immediately if you notice any of those symptoms I just described. Although torticollis can be treated, its important baby gets medical attention and treatments before further damage to neck muscles occur.

That being said, I didn’t notice any abnormalities in the way Jolene held her head so I felt pretty confident that wasn’t what we were dealing with. Asking your doctor or lactation consultant for assurance that there isn’t a medical condition is advised.

Once I was certain we weren’t dealing with a serious medical condition, I chose to just go with it. If my baby didn’t like that milk, I wouldn’t press her to nurse. And since I was experiencing discomfort as well, perhaps neither of us needed her to continue nursing on that side. I chose to see how it went and seek help after a week or two if I noticed any issues.

Fortunately, we were able to  carry on like normal. I assume either the nutritional content, milk quantity or both adapted to meet her needs and she certainly seemed satisfied. And chunky! Look!

Even though I felt okay about choosing to nurse on one side, I still had a few questions. Can I produce enough milk in one breast to give my baby all the nutritional needs she has? Or, do I need to supplement with formula? Also, should I pump the “un-fed” side? I spent a lot of time researching these questions and here is what I found.

Should You Supplement?

The short answer is no, typically there is no need to supplement with formula if baby stops breastfeeding on one side. The great thing about a mother’s body is that the magical supply and demand system is adaptable! In my case, breastfeeding Jolene was practically the same in terms of frequency compared to my experience with Jake Jr, who fed on both sides. I just trusted, and let her tell me when she was hungry. She went on to nurse on only one side every 2 to 4 hours just like a “normal” breastfed baby.

That being said, when you listen to your baby and feed them whenever they “ask” to breastfeed, you’ll create an adequate milk supply. I remember that at first Jolene nursed just a little more often and I assumed that was to increase my supply in that boob. I don’t remember experiencing any engorgement in my right, un-fed side and figured that meant that breast was “drying up”. If you experience engorgement, but want to stop feeding on the un-fed side, you can place cabbage on the breast to help speed up the process. I have never needed to do that so I would look into it more before taking my word for it! I tend to lean more toward nature’s way of things and haven’t had any issues.

Jolene was a super chunky baby girl and grew perfectly off of just one boob! Fortunately, her preferred side was also more comfortable for me, so I didn’t mind much, except for one small effect this had on me. I’ll come back to this in a minute! There’s still a couple more questions I had about feeding off of one breast.

Do I Need to Pump the Un-fed Breast?

I actually found conflicting advice on this! But what I concluded is that if you’re hoping baby will pick back up on nursing on both sides, yes, you can pump the other side. In fact, doing so will likely cause the un-fed breast to return to normal taste and quality!

And the only negative I see with pumping on that side is if you have inflammation, the pumping might make it worse. It was uncomfortable for me. BUT, if you experience engorgement from not breastfeeding from one breast, instead of pumping with an electric pump (because that just tells your body to keep producing milk) you can use a manual or hand held pump. Doing so will give you some relief and also save that milk! See the kind I recommend below!

I chose not to pump simply because I hated nursing on that side anyway. It hurts deep in my breast whenever she breastfed on that side so I know something with her or my anatomy was just not meshing well. Oddly, even after all of this time, I still have small amounts of milk I can express from the un-fed breast!

So I think ultimately the choice to pump or not is up to you and dependent on your plans for breastfeeding going forward.

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Do I Have Breast Cancer?

Maybe because i immediately thought something must be wrong with me, the fear of having breast cancer popped into my head. And actually that’s a very common first thought any time a baby refuses to nurse on one side. Thankfully, that is not the case at all most of the time. According to healthline.com 3% of breastfeeding women develop breast cancer while lactating. And even if you feel lumps, there’s other possible causes like mastitis and fibroadenomas (benign tumor) that could be the culprit. Obviously, if you feel any lumps in your breast, seek medical advice.

Ways to Handle a Nursing Strike

If you do plan to try to resume breastfeeding on the side your baby refuses, there are some things you can do to encourage the strike to end.

  • You can start each nursing session on the “unwanted” side. Baby may fuss at first, but if they’re hungry they’ll eventually eat. That doesn’t mean let them fuss and cry and get super upset. Give it a minute and if they won’t take that side, offer the other. Keep trying though every session. While trying to get baby to accept that breast, pump if they refuse. As I mentioned, pumping helps restore milk to ideal quality and tells your body milk is still needed there.
  • If the refusal seems to be because of too much milk coming too fast, use a manual breast pump to take the initial let down, and then see if baby will nurse after that.
  • If the refusal is from slow let down, again use a manual breast pump to bring milk in and once you get the letdown, see if baby will nurse. I had an oversupply and very intense letdown with my son and used this hand-held breast pump. It’s very easy to use and requires minimal work! (Also BPA free, 100% food grade)
  • Make sure your surroundings are calm and peaceful. Some babies can’t handle a lot stimulation while nursing. Try a Lying-in period!

  • Increase your physical contact throughout the day. This will reestablish your bond and the trust baby needs with you. A lot of articles advised wearing your baby in a carrier, nursing baby to sleep or just holding baby as much as possible.

So if your babe is refusing to nurse on one side, don’t panic! First, consider what you think the reason is. If your mama gut suspects a medical cause, consult a doctor right away. But if you think it’s due to a fast or slow letdown, inflammation in your breast or something else, try the tips mentioned above.

If nothing works and you feel like you’d both be better off not breastfeeding on the unwanted side, like I did, it will be okay! No need to pump or supplement as long as you feed baby when she’s hungry and see her growing okay. Or, if you want to conserve the milk on that un-fed side for as long as possible, pump! Ultimately, you should do what IS WORKING. As it turns out, your body and baby are capable of way more than we give them credit for!

Join the new Facebook Support Group, Breastfeeding Warriors, strictly for breastfeeding moms!

PS- I mentioned that there was one effect one-sided nursing had on me. You guessed it, lopsided boobs! But everything I’ve read says breasts return to symmetrical sizes once baby weans, so I’ll update this post when that happens! 🙂

If your baby is under three months old and you’re having difficulty with breastfeeding, PLEASE DON’T GIVE UP! CLICK THE BLOG BELOW! These tips will help you survive the most challenging period of breastfeeding a newborn! You can do it Mama!

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