What to Do When Your Baby Won't Breastfeed

Breast Refusal: Causes and Solutions

Woman holding baby worried
There are many reasons a baby may refuse to breastfeed. Kraig Scarbinski/Photodisc/Getty Images

When a Baby Won't Breastfeed

Breastfeeding is a wonderful and rewarding experience, but it is not without its difficulties. Newborns can have problems latching on and learning to breastfeed, and older babies who have been breastfeeding well for weeks or months can suddenly stop. Both of these situations are upsetting, but be patient and ask for help if you need it. Talk to your pediatrician or lactation consultant for assistance and support.

Most of the time you can find a solution and still breastfeed.

Why Newborns Don't Breastfeed

A new baby may have trouble learning to breastfeed. Some of the breastfeeding problems you may experience with a newborn include:

  • Your Baby Has a Poor or Inefficient Latch: The way your baby’s mouth attaches to your breast when she's breastfeeding is called the latch. If your newborn is not latching on well, then her suck will not be effective, and she won't be able to remove the milk from your breast. As your baby gets hungrier and more frustrated, it becomes more and more difficult to breastfeed, and your baby may begin to refuse the breast altogether. To prevent breastfeeding issues from a poor latch, get help with the latch right from the start. When your baby is latching on to your breast correctly, she will take your entire nipple and a good portion of your areola, the dark area around your nipple, into her mouth.
  • Your Baby Is Premature: You may not be able to breastfeed if your baby is born prematurely and needs to stay in the hospital. Then, once your little one can breastfeed, it may take some time to get it started. Small babies have small mouths, so your preemie may not be able to latch on to your breast until he gets a little bigger. Also, preemies have less energy for breastfeeding so it may seem he won't breastfeed, but he just might not be able to tolerate it yet. In the meantime, you can give your premature baby pumped breast milk until he's big enough and has enough energy to nurse at your breast. 
  • You Have Flat or Inverted Nipples: Most babies can breastfeed well even on flat or inverted nipples. But, in some cases, it's hard for the baby to latch onto the breast. If your newborn is not latching on and you think it's because of your nipples, there are many ways to correct flat or inverted nipples successfully and make it possible to breastfeed. Stimulating your nipples or using a breast pump before you breastfeed, can help to draw them out and make it easier for your baby to latch on.
  • Your Baby Has a Birth Injury or Disability: If your baby is in pain from a broken shoulder or bruises from the delivery process, he may not be able to get comfortable to breastfeed. And, newborns with neurological or physical disabilities at birth may not be able to breastfeed, or they may refuse the breast. But, once your baby is diagnosed with an injury or disability, you and the health care team work together to make the accommodations that your child needs to get started with breastfeeding. 
  • There's a Delay In the Production of Breast Milk: For first-time moms, or mothers with certain health conditions, it could take a few days for the breast milk to come in. This delay can be frustrating for you and your newborn. And when a newborn gets frustrated, he may begin to refuse the breast. But, don't get discouraged. Put the baby to breast as often as possible and if you have to supplement with formula during this time, don't feel guilty.
  • Your Baby is Sleepy: Newborns tend to be very sleepy in general, but the birth process and the medications that you were given during the delivery can cause even more drowsiness than normal. Jaundice or other illnesses can have a similar effect. And, of course, if your baby is sleeping, he's not breastfeeding. To wake your little one up, you can rub her feet or back, unwrap her, or change her diaper right before or during the feeding. Continue to try to put the baby to breast as often as possible. Thankfully, the sleepiness is usually temporary.

Why Older Children Refuse to Breastfeed

Older babies who have been breastfeeding well for a while will sometimes stop nursing out of the blue. This sudden halt is commonly known as a “nursing strike." Here are the reasons an older child may refuse to breastfeed.  

  • Your Baby Is in Pain: If your baby is teething, he has an ear infection, or he has thrush in his mouth, it may be painful for him to breastfeed. If your child is colicky, he may be uncomfortable from gas, bloating, and digestive issues which can also interfere with breastfeeding.
  • The Taste of Your Breast Milk: Hormonal changes from the return of your period, a new pregnancy, or starting birth control pills can affect the flavor of your breast milk. Smoking cigarettes before you breastfeed or eating certain foods can also change the taste of your milk. If your child doesn't like the way your milk tastes, he may not want to breastfeed.
  • Your Baby Has a Cold: Breastfeeding a sick baby can be a challenge. If your child is not feeling well, or he has a stuffy nose, it may be difficult for him to breastfeed and breathe at the same time.
  • A Low Breast Milk Supply: If your not making as much breast milk as you once were, your baby may get frustrated with breastfeeding and stop.
  • Your Child Is Getting Distracted: As they grow, infants become more curious about the world around them. Older children are more easily distracted, and sometimes there are just too many other interesting things they rather do than breastfeed.
  • Your Child Is a Fast Feeder: Older babies can breastfeed much faster than younger ones. An older child can often get a large quantity of breast milk in just a few minutes. A baby that nurses a few minutes and then stops may have had enough.

What You Can Do If Your Baby Isn't Breastfeeding



American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.

Cadwell, Karin, Turner-Maffei, Cynthia, O'Connor, Barbara, Cadwell Blair, Anna, Arnold, Lois D.W., and Blair Elyse M. Maternal and Infant Assessment for Breastfeeding and Human Lactation A Guide for the Practitioner Second Edition. Jones and Bartlett Publishers. 2006.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby. 2011.

Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

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