I opened our front door to hear our 9-month-old son’s playful squeals drifting from the bathtub down the hall. My mom was getting Levi ready for bed, having taken care of him for the past 10 days while my husband and I were visiting Ireland. We had a wonderful time, enjoyed delicious food, visited breathtaking natural attractions, and drove along the Wild Atlantic way up the west coast of the Emerald Isle. This adventure had been nearly three years in the making, as we’d planned it as a pre-baby vacation, however, COVID happened and it had been postponed.
What I really wanted to do, and had eagerly been anticipating for days, was embrace my son and nurse him. I’d continued to pump several times daily throughout our time apart so he could continue breastfeeding when we were reunited. I had really missed it, and pumping is a lot of work (power to those pumping mamas!). My mom had been giving Levi pumped milk in a bottle that I’d spent months stashing in our freezer.
Squeaky clean from his bath, nice and cozy in his pjs, I rocked my son and nursed him in the dim light of the nursery. I laid him down peacefully in his crib and he drifted off to sleep. The next morning, we picked up where we’d left off with our usual morning routine, which involved a nursing session. I’d had some concerns that Levi might develop a bottle preference in my absence, but after he’s nursed successfully twice, I thought we were in the clear.
However, at his next scheduled mid-morning feeding, Levi wanted nothing to do with me. He arched his back, screamed, and turned his face away when I tried to nurse him. Then he bit my nipple – hard. After a few minutes of this, I surrendered and gave him a bottle of pumped milk, hoping he was simply readjusting to breastfeeding again, after some time of exclusively drinking from a bottle.
However, as the days passed, he continued to exhibit the same behavior, growing increasingly agitated whenever I so much as lifted my shirt or positioned him in the cradle hold. I scoured the internet and frantically called my lactation consultant, who had helped us get off on the right foot in the early weeks of our breastfeeding relationship. She suggested I try strategies such as:
1. Do lots of skin-to-skin time with no expectation that he will nurse. Do lots of cuddles.
2. Try taking some naps together.
3. Spend lots of one-on-one quality time together.
4. Go around the house topless as much as possible.
5. Try different breastfeeding positions.
6. Breastfeed in different locations, including outdoors.
7. Breastfeed while taking a walk with baby in a front carrier.
8. Make breastfeeding time fun and silly.
9. Bathe together.
10. Try a bait and switch (start with the bottle, quickly switch to breastfeeding).
11. Pump for a few minutes before breastfeeding so the letdown is already active and baby doesn’t have to work as hard for the milk to begin flowing.
12. Try a nipple shield.
13. Hand express some milk into baby’s open mouth before beginning to breastfeed.
14. Withhold milk in bottle form for a day (you may offer in an open or straw cup. Continue to offer solid food as usual).
15. Offer when baby is not too hungry.
16. Give baby something to chew on before breastfeeding (a teether, frozen washcloth, etc.)
Levi was teething, he had a bad cold and was quite congested, and he’d had a great deal of upheaval in his routine and environment over the past few weeks. Additionally, he’d recently bitten me while nursing and I pulled him off and firmly said, “No biting,” which probably startled him. I knew all of these factors were probably at play in the nursing strike, and I hoped they would all resolve quickly.
I tried all of recommended techniques for a few weeks, but nothing was working, all the while continuing to pump. I sought support from my fellow mom friends. Some of them had experienced nursing strikes with their own babies, and I implemented any and all suggestions they offered. Although he’d been drinking from a level 0 nipple (newborn/ low flow) in my absence, it was still easier than breastfeeding, and the bottle offered a more immediate reward. It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling well for a few days upon my return home, and was dehydrated from traveling, so my supply was a little low, and likely frustrating for him.
After a while of hoping, trying, and failing for several weeks, I eventually came to terms with the fact that my baby was telling me he was done breastfeeding and I had to accept that. We had made it 9 wonderful months, and he’d already experienced a great deal of the benefits associated with breastfeeding. So, I continued to pump for about a month, dropping one session per week to give my body time to slowly stop producing milk, supplementing Levi’s feedings with formula when needed. By the time he was 10 months old, we were completely done.
I experienced many emotions during this transition time. In a way, I was going through the stages of grief, because I was grieving the loss of our breastfeeding relationship before I was ready. I really felt like I was losing something that had deeply bonded me with my son.
At first, I was in denial. I kept trying, hoping, praying that if I just muscled through this phase, we’d get this whole mess figured out. Then I was angry. Why is this happening? This wasn’t my plan! Why won’t he just nurse!? Then bargaining. Maybe if I just spend more time with him, we can reconnect…Depression. There were a lot of tearful phone calls with my mom and lonely tears at night when I should have been nursing my son instead of giving him a bottle. Finally, acceptance. I guess this is how things are now. I did my best. I need to be thankful for the time we had.
Grieving a loss of anything isn’t linear. There are still days when I revert back to anger with myself, and even regret. I never should have taken that trip. I shouldn’t have left my son…But I cannot change the past. All I can do is look forward and seek gratitude for the time we had.
Many babies go on nursing strikes and the vast majority of them will end their strikes, given enough time, patience, and provided the underlying cause of the strike is addressed. Unfortunately, this was not the case for us.
If you are currently going through a nursing strike with your baby, or perhaps your breastfeeding journey didn’t end in a mutually agreeable manner, I empathize with you. Although breastfeeding is touted as “the most natural thing in the world,” it didn’t start off or end in an effortless, natural way for us, and I know it doesn’t for many moms. Breastfeeding is a lot of work! It’s a skill both mother and baby need to learn together, often with support.
I am truly grateful that I was able to nurse my son, and hope to do the same for any future children we might be blessed with, but my heart still aches for this gift that was taken away too soon.