My Baby is Refusing a Bottle. Help!
What To Do About Bottle Refusal
Bottle refusal: Incredibly stressful, very frustrating, and totally heartbreaking.
If you’ve been exclusively breastfeeding your baby and are preparing to go back to work, you may have just introduced your baby to the bottle.
Some babies transition from breast to bottle without a care in the world. They are happy as long as they are being fed. Other babies, even when bottles are introduced around 4-5 weeks, still refuse. And some refuse hard!
When a baby refuses a bottle it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. You didn’t introduce the bottle too late. You didn’t make your baby overly dependent on you by exclusively breastfeeding. A baby wants what a baby wants! They have preferences just like we do.
Degree of bottle refusal
The degree to which a baby refuses a bottle varies. Some babies need time to adjust to a different nipple or flow of milk and may initially reject the bottle, but come around with a little bit of time and a lot of practice. Other babies will cry and resist repeatedly until mom comes home. This is not reflective of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ baby, just as it’s not reflective of parental failure because your baby is having a hard time.
I am a former NICU and postpartum nurse, and currently a lactation consultant and midwife. I’ve bottle-feed many babies over the years, know all the tricks of the trade, and still my daughter refused every single bottle. We have around 8 bottles, 3 sippy cups, and a number of pacifiers. She refused all of them. We offered her a bottle daily from 5 weeks on only to have her quickly escalate into screaming mode and refuse to eat. It was stressful and presented some difficult decisions on how to navigate my professional life and role as a mother.
Below are questions to think about if you have a baby adamantly refusing a bottle, as well as 7 tips on how to hopefully help your babe adjust to bottle feeding.
How to handle your baby’s bottle refusal!
There are ways to prepare your baby to take a bottle, which I’ll go over in a minute. But, some babies will just straight up refuse a bottle. You still have options when this happens, but they require more flexibility.
Here’s the thing, I can give you all the tips you need to help a baby take a bottle, but the one thing only you can give yourself during this time is…meaning.
What do I mean by ‘give it meaning’?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how you want to make sense of your baby’s bottle refusal.
How comfortable are you with pushing your baby to change their preferences/needs and how much flexibility can you afford (both personally and financially) if you want to adjust your plans because of baby’s refusal?
If you really want (or need) to go back to work, your baby will eventually eat even if she is adamantly refusing the bottle, there just isn’t a gentle way to get them over the hump. It’s possible they will cry and wail for 2+ weeks with each feed before adjusting. And even then, they may hold out all day and wait for you to come home to eat (something called reverse cycling). This can be really hard and emotionally conflicting for a lot of parents.
When a baby adamantly refuses a bottle there are a lot of emotions around it.
It can feel sad, like you’re abandoning your kid when they need you; frustrating because they aren’t adapting to your expectations, and scary— it can feel like your kid will be miserable all day or starve without you around.
Your parenting style and personal values will impact how you manage your emotions and interventions around bottle refusal.
For some parents it might feel really important (or absolutely necessary!) to have their baby successfully take a bottle so they can return to work.
(soap box: we need a longer maternity leave!! If you want more time at home, but can’t afford it AND have a baby refusing a bottle, I feel so sad and angry on your behalf. That’s a really difficult position to be in.)
For other parents, a baby’s protest might mean something completely different. Maybe it’s a signal to slow down for a period of time and put work on hold; maybe you decide you’d rather adjust your expectations and plans so your baby doesn’t have to.
There’s no right or wrong way of interpreting your baby’s bottle refusal and no easy answer on what to do about it. You have to decide what you can live with- both literally and figuratively.
Questions to consider:
-If you’re planning on going back to work, does your baby’s bottle refusal make you want more time at home? Is your job willing to be flexible and allow for an adjusted schedule during your kid’s first few months of life?
-Is it important for you to have space and time away from your baby so you feel balanced and rejuvenated?
-Do you feel like a better partner and mother if you have time away or time to work?
-Does having your baby refuse a bottle make you feel trapped?
-Do you feel happy with only offering the breast? Maybe you feel good about the special bond you share with your baby (Or…maybe it’s both!)
Only you know what works best for you. And only you and your family know how much crying or protesting you can handle before changing course and adjusting expectations.
I know it can be a major surprise if you have a baby who refuses a bottle. These tips might help, but if they don’t and your babe still refuses a bottle, I’m available to chat and brainstorm with you!
What to do about bottle refusal
Introduce a bottle around 4-5 weeks.
This doesn’t guarantee your baby will take it, but early introduction does help. Don’t introduce before 4-5 weeks as early introduction can impact your milk supply. Once you introduce a bottle continue to offer it at least once a week.
Have a caregiver feed baby without mom around.
Have your partner, a grandparent, or babysitter try and feed baby away from mom. A baby can smell its mother’s milk and typically chooses fresh milk from the breast over a bottle. Give baby some space to try a bottle without mom nearby.
Walk with the baby outside, facing out and away from your chest.
Sometimes a baby needs a little bit of distraction when taking a bottle. Face your baby away from your body so she can look at the world while attempting to bottle-feed. It’s best to hold baby in a position that is different from the way mom breastfeeds.
Taste your milk. Yes, I said it. Or at least smell it.
Taste or smell your milk a few hours after you pump or after you thaw it. Some women have an enzyme that breaks down their milk causing a foul or soapy odor. It’s harmless, but baby might notice a change in flavor and reject milk because of that. If your milk does smell foul or soapy make sure you’re following guidelines for safe milk storage. If improper milk handling isn’t the issue, then it’s likely to the breakdown of lipase. Per Lawrence & Lawrence (p. 781), the speculation is that these mothers have an excess of the enzyme lipase in their milk, which begins to break down the milk fat soon after the milk is expressed. Most babies do not mind a mild change in taste, but the stronger the taste the more likely that baby will reject it. What can you do? Lipase can be inactivated by scalding newly expressed milk.
From Kelly Mom:
“To scald milk:
Heat milk to about 180 F (82 C), or until you see little bubbles around the edge of the pan (not to a full, rolling boil).
Quickly cool and store the milk.
Scalding the milk will destroy some of the antiinfective properties of the milk and may lower some nutrient levels, but this is not likely to be an issue unless all of the milk that baby is receiving has been heat-treated”.
Give your baby a bottle when she is happy.
When you first start offering a bottle, give it when baby is in a good mood. Ideally, this is 1 hour after the last feeding when baby is still slightly full. Feeding when baby is in a good mood can help her make a positive association with the bottle. If baby is getting worked up, stop offering the bottle and help her calm down. This might mean going to the breast if baby is very adamantly refusing.
*This is where you have to decide how much you’re willing to push your baby or take the ‘hit’ yourself (i.e adjust expectations). It can take up to 2+ weeks of adamant refusal before some babies come around to the bottle. You have to decide if you’re ok with the amount of stress this puts on your baby (and on you!).
Some babies just won’t take a bottle. Or a sippy cup. Or if they do take a bottle, they consume only enough milk to get through the day and wait for mom to come home to feed. This is called reverse cycling. Your baby will eat frequently throughout the evening and overnight to make up for calories missed during the day. As long as you’re seeing adequate wet and dirty diapers, it’s ok for a baby to reverse cycle.
*If you work longer than 8-10 hours this might be hard to do in the beginning. Check in with your employer and see if they can work with you during this time. Once baby starts taking solids, around 6 months, it is easier to work with bottle refusal and reverse cycling since they are getting calories elsewhere.
Try a different bottle. Or a sippy cup.
Sometimes the nipple size or flow from a bottle affects baby. Try different bottles to see if baby has a preference. A slow flow or preemie nipple can help babies make the jump. Below are a few recommendations for different types of bottles.