Your baby, who has always come to your breast for comfort, love, and nourishment, is now screaming, crying, and arching away from your breast. You’re sick with worry. Is something wrong with your milk? Do you have enough? Does your baby hate breastfeeding? Is something wrong with your baby?
Both of my babies did this when they had the “evening fussies” as newborns, and my new baby is doing it on and off lately, as he turns four months and enters another fussy period. Even though I’ve done it before, and I’m a trained breastfeeding professional, my blood pressure rises, and my heart breaks a little each time my baby pulls away from my breast, screaming his little head off.
As crazy as it sounds, this kind of behavior at the breast is a NORMAL, but unhappy part of nursing that most babies go through at one time or another, and almost always resolves in due time.
First, it’s important to make sure your baby isn’t actually suffering physically. There are several physical, medical reasons why a baby might cry at your breast, including food intolerances, allergies, foremilk/hindmilk imbalance (too much milk, creating painful gas), reflux, or illness. Kellymom.com has an excellent list of possibilities for you to scour if your gut tells you something is really hurting inside your little one’s body.
But if you have a healthy, thriving infant of any age, then it’s important to understand that being a baby is hard and sometimes babies cry, even at their mother’s breast. If your baby is growing healthily on your milk (i.e., gaining weight well, meeting milestones), this crying and refusal does not indicate that you don’t have enough milk.
The reasons babies fuss at the breast are the same reasons babies fuss in general:
- Babies fuss when they’re tired (especially overtired).
- They fuss when they’re hungry (babies, especially breastfed ones, are a lot happier when fed quite frequently).
- Newborns, in the first three months of life, tend to fuss on and off in the evening (more about the evening fussies here).
- They fuss when they’re learning something new, both physical (like rolling over, crawling, and walking) and mental/developmental (The Wonder Weeks is a fascinating look at what happens developmentally in the first years of life, and explains that there are times when your baby becomes fussy as he is learning a new idea or concept).
- They fuss when they’re having a growth spurt.
- They also fuss during times of emotional stress, including when you or your family are stressed for any reason.
- They fuss when they’re teething (which is on and off for the first two years or so).
- They fuss when they’re bored.
- They fuss when they’re gassy or need to poop (a certain amount of gassiness is normal; if your baby seems to be in pain, has frequent diaper rashes, or passes blood in his or her stool, you may want to look further into this with your doctor, naturopath, or breastfeeding helper).
When babies gets worked up about these things, they feel the distress in their whole bodies, from head to toe, and they can go from zero to a hundred very quickly. This is precisely why the distress makes it hard for them to nurse, and why they often seem to want to nurse, but can’t calm down enough or coordinate their mouths and bodies to latch on and suck. Breastfeeding takes a bit of coordination. The baby has to properly position himself, and work his lips and tongue in the right way in order to extract the milk. This is why babies who refuse the breast might take a bottle or pacifier more easily and happily – both are easy to grip, and milk flows out of a bottle with less effort from the baby. But if your goal is to get your baby happily back to the breast, bottles and pacifiers are not what you want right now.
Regardless of the cause, the idea is to calm your baby’s body and mind so that she can peacefully nurse. This is exactly what your baby wants to do, but can’t do alone. Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that all babies, when calmed and coaxed and wooed, will come back to your breast, whether it’s in an hour or an afternoon (if a baby is refusing for more than a few hours, see this link about nursing strikes). It is very rare for a baby under the age of two years to refuse the breast and never come back.
Here are my favorite things to try. There are certainly more! Remember, the main idea is that screaming, stressed out, fussy babies find it difficult to nurse — this is a list of things to try to make nursing more peaceful and calm during these stormy times.
- Nurse during sleepy times. Nurse your baby when he is almost asleep. Nurse your baby when she is waking up. Nurse him in the middle of a nap. Nurse her in the middle of the night. Your baby usually forgets what is bothering him during these sleepy times and will nurse more easily.
- Wear your baby. Sometimes a good walk in the baby carrier, with the baby snuggled and swaddled against your skin is all it takes to calm a baby down. Try nursing after a good walk in your favorite carrier.
- Have someone else calm the baby. Babies can sense your stress, and sometimes you need a break. Hand off the baby to a trusted family member, and try to nurse after that.
- Breathe and wait. A few deep breaths can do wonders. If your screaming baby is stressing you out, take a minute or two to breathe and close your eyes. Put the baby down in a safe place. Try to nurse now.
- Ditch the bottles and formula. As I said before, a baby who is growing just fine on your milk does not need a bottle or formula when he is fussy at your breast. If you’ve tried it all and your baby is still refusing the breast, you may need to pump your milk to keep up your supply and to feed your baby, but you should stay away from bottles during breast refusal. Feed your baby the pumped milk with a spoon or a small cup (shot glass size).
- Therapeutic finger sucking. Sucking calms babies down. It releases relaxing hormones and calms their bodies. A baby who is fussy at the breast might be calmed down by sucking on your finger first. The advantage of a finger over a pacifier is that it costs nothing, isn’t made of plastic, smells and tastes like you, can’t be lost (I hope not!), and requires you to hold your baby while you use it.
- Never force the breast. When you really want your baby to nurse, when you know it’s exactly what she needs, you’ll do anything to get the baby nursing. But try not to force the breast into your baby’s mouth, especially if she’s crying. Babies are smart, and sometimes being forced into something will turn them off even more. Remember, you want a calm baby at the breast.
- Go outside. Sometimes your baby just needs a change of scene. Sometimes the cooler or warmer air is soothing. Sometimes the different sights help. Basically, going outside changes the subject from “I want to nurse but I’m too upset,” to “Hey, look at that cool cloud in the sky.” Bring baby in and he may forget whatever it was he was so upset about.
- Nurse in the dark. This is a good one for the babies ages 4-6 months, who are very distracted by their surroundings. They want to nurse, but they also want to look at everything there is in this world, and it’s hard for them to nurse and look at the same time, so they freak out. Nursing in the dark helps with that because there’s nothing to see! It can also help soothe a baby of any age, especially one who is feeling overstimulated.
- Nurse in the bath. Get in the bath with your baby. Most babies like to bathe with their moms. It’s a good time for skin-to-skin contact, and the warm water is soothing. It reminds them of the womb! You might find your fussy baby latching on by himself without you even trying!
- Skin to skin. Your baby loves the way you smell and the warmth of your skin. Sometimes just holding your baby against your bare skin without forcing breastfeeding can get a fussy baby calm enough to nurse, and in the right mood.
- Change your scent. Speaking of skin, some sensitive little souls react poorly when you try out a new perfume or deodorant. You don’t smell like you anymore or the new smell just doesn’t work for your baby. Try showering with unscented soap and seeing if that helps.
- Switch sides. Here’s another “change of scene” tip again. Sometimes your fussy baby just needs a break, and moving to the other side breast works wonders. Sometime the other side is just more comfortable and easier to latch onto during a fussy time. Try it.
- Different positions. When my baby is fussy, he’s often worse when I’m nursing him while sitting down. His body just gets all jumpy and jittery. But when I lay him down and nurse him in bed, the flat, firm surface soothes him. So try different positions. You never know what might work.
- Squeeze your breasts! If your fussy baby will latch on, but then starts to cry, give your breasts a gentle squeeze just as your baby latches on. This will give your baby an instant shot of milk, and might remind her of what the whole nursing thing is all about.
- Preempt the fussiness. If you know that your baby has been starting to fuss/cry lately at 5pm, start your soothing ritual at 4:30pm. The baby might still fuss, but will be easier to soothe (and nurse) if he isn’t already worked up into a crying fit.
- Weekend in bed. If life has been too hectic or stressful lately, sometimes resting for a few hours, a day, or better yet, a weekend, is all it takes to woo a baby back to the breast. Spend the weekend in bed taking some naps together. You’ll both be more relaxed and your baby will be likely to nurse then.
- Burp the baby. Sometimes a baby will be fussy at the breast just because he needs to burp! Breastfed babies don’t need to be burped after every feeding, but sometimes they do, even when they’re past the newborn stage.
- Music. Both of my babies stopped fussing, at least for a few minutes, when we turned on Simon and Garfunkel. Go figure! Anyway, sometimes music, a white noise machine, or the sound of a vacuum will relax a baby.
- Call your breastfeeding helper. Nothing beats a good talk with your La Leche League leader, WIC counselor, IBCLC, or other breastfeeding helper. Each mama/baby situation is different, and if nothing seems to be working, it’s worth a deeper investigation of the matter with an experienced helper.
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