It’s a bit of a terrifying scenario for breastfeeding parents who are returning to paid work: your baby refuses to feed from a bottle.
Everyone panics. Your caregiver is nervous about how they will take care of your baby while you’re away. You are scared about your baby getting the nutrition and hydration that she needs to grow well. You go on an Amazon shopping binge, searching for the “perfect” bottle that your baby will like. Maybe you’ve heard about “reverse cycling” and are anxious about what that will mean for your overnight sleep now that you’re back in the workplace. Concerned friends or family may suggest you “just switch to formula” to make it “easier” for everyone.
Side note: it isn’t always breastfed babies who experience a bottle strike. If your baby is formula fed, keep reading, this technique is for you, too!
As lactation professionals, we often help families when their baby is on a bottle strike, and have learned from experience a few tips to help. Of course, they aren’t foolproof, but are good starting points. We also help parents separate “fact from fiction.”
First, the fiction: there is no perfect bottle.
Instead of wasting a ton of money on bottles that may or may not work, let’s try a different feeding technique (and it’s free!)
Another piece of fiction? “Just” switching to formula rarely makes any part of feeding easier. (This is not a judgement against feeding your baby in whatever way works best for you.) Why? If your baby is refusing to feed from a bottle, it doesn’t matter if milk or formula is inside. It’s not about the contents. Switching a breastfed baby to formula is likely to cause a host of OTHER transition issues, including digestive changes. (And the lactating parent is going to need time to stop lactating slowly… cold turkey is not the way to go!)
Through my years of experience, I have isolated three important factors to help ease the transition for your sweet babe from 24/7 access to the breast to 14/7 access to the breast (or however long you are away from her at work.) Putting these three factors together gives us an effective technique for helping baby accept a bottle.
The 3 P’s of Bottle Refusal
Most likely your baby isn’t struggling with just the bottle. She is struggling with change. This is not to make you feel guilty about your need and/or desire to return to paid work. It is a statement of your baby’s feelings, which are real and valid. So her caregiver – the person feeding her from a bottle – will need to have a deep well of patience to help her through this change, including during feeding times. Your baby cannot be rushed into relaxation. This technique also takes time and acceptance of baby’s emotions and preferences. After all, she is a full human being who doesn’t want to be forced to eat! We need to respect that and honor her while we are working to help her accept this method of feeding.
Mothers and babies spend a great deal of time engaging in an activity anthropologists call “mutual gazing.” We stare into each other’s eyes for long periods of time. In fact, this behavior has been studied and gives important insight into human development. And when do most mothers and babies engage in this activity? During feeding. I suggest choosing a feeding position where baby and caregiver are NOT looking directly into each other’s eyes. The position should also NOT be the same as the position that YOU feed your baby in. We want to avoid reminding your baby of breastfeeding. Finally, we should use a position that makes paced-feeding possible.
The final P may be the hardest for caregivers to accept, but might also be the most important one. Never are we going to FORCE the baby to feed. We will also wait for, and ask, for permission from your baby. That means we don’t force bottle nipples into baby’s mouth, and we don’t start feeding until she is calm and relaxed. If she gets upset, we stop and start over.
So how do we tie this all together?
Note: If any of these activities upset your baby, return to the first step and slowly work back through each one.
Step 1: The caregiver is relaxed, comfortable and ready to work on helping your baby. They have time and patience.
Step 2: They sit in a relaxed position with a ready bottle. They position your baby in one of the suggested positions.
Step 3: The caregiver first holds the bottle in front of the baby, making sure not to rush or upset her.
Step 4: After a bit of calm acceptance, the caregiver will slowly move the bottle towards your baby and may even get it close enough to your baby’s nose for her to smell the milk.
Step 5: With a calm, happy baby, the caregiver should try stroking baby’s nose and upper lip, gently, with the bottle nipple.
Step 6: When your baby opens her mouth to latch on the bottle nipple, bring the bottle into baby’s mouth.
Step 7: Follow the steps for paced-feeding to ensure a comfortable and easy feed.
Let us know how this works for you! We’d love to hear your feedback.