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Breastfeeding—managing breast refusal

It is normal for babies to be fussy at the breast from time to time and even refuse the breast.

However, for babies under 12 months of age, it is unlikely to be because they are choosing to wean from the breast.

Possible causes of breast refusal

  • A long labour or difficult delivery.
  • A normal developmental stage for babies caused by distraction or an increased awareness of their surroundings.
  • An adverse oral experience where your baby has had something forcefully put in their mouth.
  • You are unwell, for example mastitis.
  • Your baby is unwell, for example an ear infection.
  • Sucking on an artificial nipple such as a teat or nipple shield.
  • Poor milk supply.
  • Altered taste of the milk caused by hormonal changes such as pregnancy.
  • Forceful milk ejection (letdown).
  • Your reaction to having been bitten by your baby.

What to do if your baby refuses to feed at the breast

  • First, determine if it is breast refusal and not just a signal of completion of a feed. Many mothers misinterpret the quicker feed times and decreased need for breast milk of an older baby. Many five to six month old babies can complete a breastfeed in 10 minutes.
  • Your baby should checked by your family doctor to make sure that they are not unwell.
  • If your baby refuses more than two feeds, you will need to express to maintain your milk supply and then you can use this milk to feed your baby.
  • Avoid forcing your baby to the breast.
  • Ensure you and your baby have lots of skin-to-skin time in bed or in the bath.
  • Minimise environmental distractions; choose a dimly lit room to feed your baby and play some relaxing music.
  • Attempt breastfeeds when your baby is sleepy, nearly asleep or just waking up.
  • Offer the breast instead of a pacifier.
  • Be patient and remember this is usually temporary and will pass.
  • Seek support from Mater Mothers' Parenting Support Centre lactation consultants.

True breast refusal should be assessed and followed up with a lactation consultant and/or your family doctor.

Mater acknowledges consumer consultation in the development of this patient information.
Last modified 24/11/2016.
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