When your baby suddenly refuses to nurse, it usually means you're in the stressful territory of a nursing strike. A baby (or even a toddler) almost never suddenly weans. Weaning is usually more of a gradual process, with your child dropping nursing sessions over a few weeks or months. So, when your happy nursling just turns away from the breast and flat out refuses out of nowhere, that's what experts call a "nursing strike."
I have experienced a few nursing strikes myself as a breastfeeding mom, and having helped many mothers through them as a lactation consultant, I know that it's one of the hardest, most painful things a nursing mom will experience. Even if you can pinpoint the trigger (teething, biting, stress and illness are top contenders), it's difficult not to feel like you somehow failed as a mom.
What’s worse is the fear that your baby may never nurse again and that breastfeeding is over without either of you getting time to process that. The good news is that nursing strikes almost always end. But it takes a whole lot of patience, faith and support—plus, a few tried-and-true tricks.
If you try to make (babies) breastfeed when they're upset, that’s only going to make the problem worse.
First of all, whatever is going on, you've got to make sure that your baby is fed and that your milk supply is protected. Make sure to express your milk, and feed it to your baby if they refuse to feed directly from the source. You can feed it to them via cup or bottle (consider paced bottle-feeding, so your child won’t end up preferring the bottle).
Beyond that, what’s the best way to get your baby back to the breast? In my experience, you should never force your baby to breastfeed. Your baby is upset with the breast for a reason. Maybe they nursed while teething and it really hurt their gums. Maybe they bit you, you screamed and it scared them. They might not remember or understand what it is, but if you try to make them breastfeed when they're upset, that’s only going to make the problem worse.
My best advice is this: You’ve got to help them forget what upset them in the first place, remind them of the comfortable, cozy place your breasts are supposed to be, and only offer them the breast under these conditions. The best way to do that? Breastfeed them while they are half-asleep.
Yep, it's as simple as that. If possible, I usually recommend a mom spend a day or two in bed with her baby. If your baby usually naps in a crib, you can still do some naps or part of the night in the crib, but also take your baby into bed with you, at least for this "fix." Get topless. Skin-to-skin contact is a great way to get your baby all cozy and happy to nurse again.
Then, as you lie there with your baby, don't force it. Even if your baby won’t take the breast to fall asleep, often if they’ve fallen asleep near you, they will wake up looking for the breast—and it’s in this drowsy, half-asleep state that babies will usually break their nursing strike.
If you can’t set aside an entire day or two to do this, or if you are totally against sleeping with your baby even for a nap, that’s OK too. Just do lots of skin-to-skin with them, especially when they are sleepy, and try to nurse in a quiet, dark room just as they are waking up from their naps or in the middle of the night.
This is usually all it takes to end a nursing strike. If it doesn’t help, call a volunteer breastfeeding counselor or lactation consultant for help. Most of all, know that nursing strikes almost always pass, and you will get through this.