What is breast refusal? With Sarah Thijs (IBCLC)

What is breast refusal? With Sarah Thijs (IBCLC)

Breastfeeding is often an emotional time, especially in the early days, and there are often different challenges to navigate. Out of all the challenges you might encounter during your breastfeeding journey, breast refusal can be one of the toughest. 

Feeling like your baby doesn’t want to feed can be stressful, exhausting and deflating. It might seem like a big rejection, but breast refusal is a common breastfeeding experience that is usually temporary (and can usually be resolved with a few simple strategies). 

To give you all the support and guidance you need right now, we’ve chatted with Sarah Thijs, an amazing Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) working at MAMA (Midwives and Mothers Australia). A qualified midwife since 2012, Sarah moved to Australia from the Netherlands and has been working as a Lactation Consultant since 2019. 

In this blog, Sarah explains what breast refusal is, some of the common reasons for breast refusal as well as her top strategies for navigating this tricky time. 

What is breast refusal?

Breast refusal happens when a baby is struggling to latch properly on the breast or seems to be uninterested in the breast altogether (even though it’s obvious the baby is hungry). 

It can happen at any stage, but can often occur when a baby is going through a developmental leap (such as around three or four months old) as the world around them becomes filled with interesting sights and sounds.

The experience of breast refusal is similar to a fussy feeder  who might take a long time to start feeding and break away frequently as they become distracted or restless. 

What causes breast refusal?

One of the best ways to navigate breast refusal is to understand what causes it to happen in the first place. 

While everyone’s breastfeeding experience is different, there are some common reasons for breast refusal, including:

  • Baby-related reasons: such as anatomical variations (such as a cleft palate), nipple confusion, developmental stage distraction, baby’s mood (being overtired or overstimulated) or an unwell baby. 
  • Mother-related reasons: being overtired or overstressed, nipple variation (flat or inverted nipples can be tricker for babies to latch onto), different smells (such as new soaps or deodorants), different appearance (yes, wearing glasses can make a difference), and different tastes in breast milk (such as changes in diet or even the return of your period).
  • Supply-related reasons: either milk is flowing too fast (oversupply) or not fast enough (low supply). 

Practical strategies to navigate breast refusal 

Sarah shares that many mamas experience lots of stress and frustration during a period of breast refusal. If we’re finding breastfeeding difficult, we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it work (which can actually stop us from having a positive feeding experience).

“As soon as you’re having a lot of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol, oxytocin levels (the hormone that squeezes milk out of our breasts) becomes really low,” explains Sarah. 

Unfortunately, it can easily become a vicious cycle: baby refuses the breast, baby becomes hungry and frustrated, mama gets stressed, baby feels her tension and doesn’t want the breast anymore.

We know it’s easier said than done, but keeping our stress levels low and staying calm through the frustration is one of the best things you can do to navigate breast refusal. 

If you’re encountering breast refusal, here are some practical strategies Sarah suggests:

  • Try feeding when baby is just waking up or when nearly asleep
  • Mix up the place you feed and don’t keep trying the same place if things aren’t working (a dark bedroom is always a good option)
  • Try different positions and see what works for you (Sarah suggests standing up and bouncing or walking if you’ve navigating breast refusal)
  • Turn on some relaxing background music or try humming or singing
  • Give baby a massage
  • Have a bath together and try feeding in the bath
  • Take the pressure off feeding and focus on lots of skin-to-skin time (and see if baby instinctually find their way to your breast)
  • If you’re navigating low supply or blocked ducts, gently massaging a warm Lactamo harnesses the power of breast massage to encourage blood flow and aid the  let-down reflex 

If nothing feels like it’s working, don’t force yourself to keep breastfeeding, mama. Sarah encourages mums to keep their breasts a happy place and give  your baby some expressed milk with a bottle or feeding device instead. 

When it comes to navigating breast refusal, being kind and gentle on yourself is one of the best things you can do. Give things a break, focus on cuddles and skin-to-skin contact and speak with a lactation consultant if you need some extra support and guidance. And remember: this can be hard and you’re doing great, mama.  If in doubt, please always consult your healthcare professional.