If your baby is on an extended nursing strike, the Internet can be a disheartening place. There are plenty of stories out there, but longer the strike, the more likely the story is to end with: "Unfortunately, little so-and-so never nursed again."
This is not one of those stories. It took 40 days, but in the end, we made it from all bottles to all breastfeeding. It was Serena who coached us through. Without her guidance, I doubt we would have made it.
Our strike started on September 15, 2016, when my son was just over 10 months old. I nursed him when he woke up, then gave him his solids for breakfast as usual. Toward the end of the meal, he began crying and pulling at his lower lip, and I saw he'd bitten it slightly. He calmed down quickly, and I thought nothing of it.
A few hours later, I went to nurse him. He latched, sucked a few times, then pulled off, upset, and wouldn’t latch again. I pumped a feeding and gave it to him by bottle, then another, and another as he kept refusing to breastfeed. I figured he’d go back to nursing when his lip felt better. By the next day, however, he wouldn’t even try to latch when I offered. I’d always been home with him; the last time I'd pumped more than an occasional feeding had been just after my son was born, before we had tongue and lip ties released. I found myself struggling to keep up. I’d never had much fondness for my electric pump, so I was primarily using my hand pump. I’d offer a breast and then, when he refused, pump that feeding, no matter the time of day (or night). I had no freezer stash; I’d never needed it. I quickly began to worry about maintaining my supply, both to keep him fed and so there would be something for him to come back to.
The following day, I took my son to the pediatrician to rule out any medical problems. Nothing. Good news, of course, but it also meant there was no obvious factor causing the strike that we could address. I tried to nurse him to sleep for a nap after the appointment — something he usually liked and sometimes even required — but he wouldn’t latch. I emailed a retired lactation consultant acquaintance, who replied with the words I’d feared: “nursing strike."
I went straight to Google to read everything I could find about nursing strikes and how to end them. Most were said to last 2-5 days, maybe a week at the outer limit. We could make it until then, I thought. The following day, I started trying everything I could to get my son to nurse. I held him for a nap and offered as he woke up — no luck. We took a bath together, and I offered there — no luck. I offered after he was drowsy from his pre-bed bottle — no luck. He would snuggle up and happily take a bottle or suck his thumb, but he’d freak out if I so much as moved to offer a breast.
I was shocked by how heartbreaking it was for me. I’d recently gone through a sudden divorce, moving cross-country and in with my parents, and the thought of what would quite possibly be my only baby, whom I'd planned to let self-wean, never nursing again was crushing. It felt so final; he was so adamant it freaked me out. I just kept thinking that the last time he’d nursed, I’d probably been browsing Facebook on my phone. I hadn’t even been paying attention. I swore if he’d come back, I’d never use my phone while nursing again. I told myself not to panic for at least a few more days; it was early still.
The house I’d recently purchased was ready for us to move in, but I put off the move, afraid that making any major changes might prolong the strike. Instead, over the next days, I kept trying different ideas. I got my son to take one feeding from an open cup in case using a bottle was keeping him on strike, but by the second feeding, he’d had enough and refused. I tried to teach him to drink from a straw for the same reason, but he didn’t catch on. I got him a couple of learner cups, all of which he rejected. I switched to a slow-flow nipple instead of the “age-appropriate” one we’d been using. We did skin-to-skin when we could, but it was hard while sharing a living space with others. One time, he started to latch before pulling away. Another time, he bit rather than latching. He fell asleep with a bottle, and it broke my heart that he was so comfortable with that imposter breast. I rocked him to sleep with the breast nearest his face out. We tried different positions and places to no avail. I called the lactation consultant associated with our pediatrician’s office, but she didn’t have any more ideas.
I noticed he seemed to be pigging out on solids, eating way more than he had been even a few days earlier, and I got worried I wasn’t producing enough milk for him. I rented a Medela Symphony and started power pumping. I even managed to get a feeding ahead.
I posted in several Facebook groups, including Serena’s, looking for advice. Through one of these groups, a mom with a similarly aged baby who was also on strike contacted me, and we struck (no pun intended) up a kind of friendship, brought together by the strange and stressful situation we found ourselves sharing. It helped immensely having someone to talk to who knew what this felt like.
A week into the strike, I noticed something white on the inside of my son’s top lip. It looked a bit like blisters to me. Someone said thrush; someone else suggested hand, foot, & mouth. Back to the pediatrician we went, where we figured out the lip was torn up from the shape of the bottle we’d been using, the friction of teeth against lip against bottle wearing tooth-shaped patches. He didn't seem to be in pain, but the doctor warned I would need to switch to a faster flow bottle soon to avoid things getting worse. I went out and bought another brand of bottle, hoping a different nipple shape would alleviate the problem, and it seemed to help.
A couple of days later, my son started letting me express milk into his mouth now and then, which I hoped was a good sign, and occasionally he’d let the very tip of a nipple touch his lip. It didn’t feel like much progress, though. I reached out to local LLLI leaders who, though kind, didn’t have any more ideas for me to try. I knew the people around me were wondering why I didn’t throw in the towel, especially given everything else we were dealing with. But in a way, it was because of all that that I needed to keep going with what I believed was right for us. I needed us to beat this thing.
Thirteen days into the strike, I talked to Serena. She had me send a video of me offering to nurse my son and immediately labeled his refusal as behavioral, not caused by pain or discomfort. Though the strike may have started from mouth pain, in the days that followed he had decided not to nurse, that he preferred a bottle. She had a plan, and I was so relieved to feel like I was taking actual steps toward a resolution.
Serena had several suggestions right off the bat. She wanted me to focus on increasing my supply so that I was pumping several ounces more than what my son was eating each day. That way, there would be plenty of milk ready and waiting if/when he decided to latch, not to mention a little bit of a freezer stash just in case. We were to switch gradually from our current bottles (Avent Natural) to Dr. Brown’s, starting with a faster flow nipple and moving to progressively slower ones every few feedings until we were using preemie nipples. I stopped offering to nurse. Instead, I gave my son his bottle in nursing position, with the bottle held in my armpit, and gradually worked on having the corresponding breast out during the feeding. As he got more comfortable, I started holding the back of his head as I always had to help him latch, making sure he could see the bottle as I did so to keep him from thinking I was going to make him nurse. Soon enough, he was comfortable taking his bottle like he was breastfeeding, breast out and everything -- though he would look around for the bottle to make sure it was there.
It was around this time that I decided to move into the new house. Maintaining the status quo wasn't breaking the strike, so perhaps novelty would. We would have less practical support after the move, but there would be more baby-friendly areas where I could let my son play while I pumped, and with our own space, walking around topless (another common piece of strike advice!) was actually possible (not that it helped in our case).
After a few days of “armpit boob,” Serena gave us the ok to try using a nipple shield, which would feel more like a bottle nipple to my son. I tried taking the bottle away mid-feeding and offering a breast with a shield full of expressed milk and a letdown I’d stimulated with a hand pump. He got upset and refused, but I suspected it was more at having his feeding interrupted than about the breast itself. We finished the feeding by bottle. A couple of times he fell asleep with the bottle for a nap, and I’d offer a breast with the shield when he woke up. Both times, he just cried until he found his thumb. I even tried offering once in the middle of the night after I’d rocked him back to sleep, but he didn’t even acknowledge that I was tickling his lip with a nipple shield. He never was a dream feeder, and if he wanted to suck, he’d find his thumb.
On day 20, I got my son to latch twice with a full shield. He gave a few sucks each time before pulling away and refusing to try again. The third time I tried, he flat-out refused. Serena reassured me that it was progress and that the process might take weeks. When I asked her to tell me when it was time to be discouraged, she replied: "I am never discouraged because all things are possible."
The next day, my son nursed twice, and I was ecstatic. We used the shield, and I had to do breast compressions the whole time, but he nursed! It seemed miraculous. The biggest issue was that he was biting like crazy. He’d go to latch, then clamp down on my nipple for what felt like an eternity before finally relaxing into nursing. Without the shield as a kind of buffer, I’m not sure our efforts would’ve been sustainable. He was biting all kinds of things at the time — furniture, my legs, stuffed animals — so I wondered if maybe he was teething or something. I tried ibuprofen the next day, but it didn’t seem to lessen the biting. We did get a couple more nursing sessions in, with lots more biting. He started opening his mouth to relatch after letting go mid-feeding instead of sucking his thumb, which was a tiny step in the right direction. When he refused to breastfeed, or when my nipples were too sore to try, we’d do a bottle.
I started to worry that continuing to let him bite and not unlatching him when he did (since waiting out the bite was the only way to get him nursing) would turn into a habit. After a few days of letting him bite, I started taking him off each time he clamped down. I’d offer an ounce of milk by bottle, then try to latch again. That didn’t work, and I was afraid he'd either develop negative associations with the nipple shield if I kept offering and then removing him or decide biting was a way to get a bottle. We went back to bottles full time. It felt like such a setback, coming on the heels of what has seemed like great progress. I reached out to everyone I could think of about the biting, but no one had ideas beyond teething. I think by this point, most people I knew thought I was well and truly crazy for not having given up by now. But still, I just couldn’t. I knew I wasn’t ready to be done breastfeeding, and I believed my son wasn’t, either.
After a few days’ break, I offered a breast without the shield, just to see what would happen. My son started to latch, then bit me. I tried giving half-feeding bottles to take the edge off of his hunger, then offering with a shield. He wasn’t having it. Serena advised us to go back to armpit boob for a day so that he didn’t start rejecting breastfeeding altogether. "Go slower," she said. I was afraid each feeding by bottle would carry us further away from breastfeeding, but Serena's logic made sense.
Four weeks into the strike, I had to cancel plans I'd been looking forward to for reasons unrelated to the strike. With that disappointment added to the discouragement of the past few days, I was feeling particularly low. It was a beautiful fall day, unseasonably warm, so I decided to take my son out into the backyard. We sat together on a blanket, looking at birds and leaves and reading books together. It felt like a connection that had been strained during the strike was strengthened. At one point, when I had him on my lap, he turned toward me and almost rooted for a breast. Back inside, we put on some music and danced around our living room together, something he loved. Then I donned the shield and offered…and he latched without biting! It was evening, and my supply was low, so there wasn’t much milk at the ready. He quickly became frustrated and let go. But oh, it was progress.
The next day, day 29, my son nursed once in the morning, using the shield but without biting. I was ecstatic. The second feeding, though, he played around and then bit. Serena told me to slow down. She assigned us one week of only trying to nurse for the first feeding of the day, with the shield, and doing the rest by bottle. After five days of successful single morning nursing sessions, Serena let us go up to two nursing sessions a day. At first the second one was iffy, but after a couple of days it became routine.
On day 40, after a week of successfully nursing twice a day and doing the rest of the feedings by bottle, Serena bumped us up to four feedings. They went so well the first day that she told me to pull all bottles and see what happened. He kept nursing! That first bedtime nursing in six weeks, he went for a whole hour, like he was reveling in this familiar ritual we’d almost lost. I was reveling, too.
He was a different baby — taking his time, playing, stopping to babble or look around — but he was breastfeeding. And it made sense. It had been a month and a half, and he was more like a toddler now at almost a year old than the baby he’d been when the strike began. He now got excited when he saw the hand pump I still used to stimulate letdown, like he used to get excited when he saw a bottle, and the change made me so happy.
The road was not completely smooth from then on. At times, it was like he had forgotten how to nurse. He’d latch happily, then lie there for 30 or 40 minutes not really sucking. Several times he bumped his mouth while playing, and I went into complete panic mode, terrified he would go back on strike from the pain. The biting came back sometimes, a hard, long, clamping chomp that he used on breast and toy and furniture alike. I continued to pump, first to decrease the oversupply I’d intentionally built during the strike and then to supplement what he was getting from breastfeeding, as I suspected he continued to struggle. There was a period a few weeks after the strike ended that we were back down to a single breastfeeding session per day; the rest of his feedings he took by straw cup after refusing a breast.
Finally, I contacted a local craniosacral therapist about the biting, which I suspected was somehow linked to the ongoing breastfeeding challenges. My son had had problems with face and neck tension that had affected his latch around five months of age, which we’d resolved with the help of a CST where we lived at the time. The new one we saw took one look at my son, tried to do one short exercise with his mouth (which led to him crying and cowering away from her for the remaining 45 minutes of the session), and referred us to a feeding therapist. This, it turned out, was exactly what my son needed. Over the months since, through weekly sessions and daily exercises that we do at home, he has gradually released a huge amount of tension from his jaw and face and developed movement patterns and muscles that allow him to nurse comfortably as well as eat solids and drink from a straw so much more effectively. The difference is staggering; it's easy to see how much wider he can open his mouth and how much better he can manage food as he chews, not to mention the improvement in breastfeeding. I have not pumped since a month into therapy. And according to our therapist, uncovering and working on these issues now will avert food aversions and even speech problems down the road. I don’t believe it was these issues that caused the strike in the first place, but I do believe they made it harder for us to get back on track, especially once the strike was over. They also explain why, months before the strike began, the Baby-Led Weaning approach to introducing solids was a spectacular failure for us.
My son is now 16 months old. Our breastfeeding looks different from what it did before the strike, and not just because he's older. We still use a shield; the one time I tried without it, he bit me. He also stopped asking to nurse when the strike began, and he has never started again. I offer five times a day, based on when he wakes up, naps, and goes to bed on a particular day, and that seems to work for us. And nice as that first hour-long bedtime session was, he has since cut back to a more manageable 10-15 minutes most of the time.
Oh, and my promise not to use my phone while breastfeeding? Still going strong. Some things are too precious to miss, and it took losing one of them for a time for me to realize that.