Oh No – My Baby Won’t Take a Bottle!

You’re committed to breastfeeding. You’ve read the books. You took the class. You talked to your midwife or lactation consultant, and everyone told you DO NOT give your baby a bottle until he is four weeks old. Maybe they even said six weeks. You were dutiful, you didn’t use a pacifier, you didn’t give any bottles, but now you are staring down the barrel of having to go back to work or school, or you just plan want to be able to leave your baby to go to the gym or the salon or girls’ night out, and you want him to be able to take a bottle.

Everyone told you early on that if you give your baby a bottle, she might get the dreaded nipple confusion because drinking from the bottle is so much easier for baby and she might prefer the bottle and then refuse to nurse. So it seems like a no-brainer that when you sit down with her and try to give her that first bottle when she is a month old that she will smile up at you in pleasure at how easy it is to remove the milk from the bottle.

So you pump. You have a bottle warm and ready to go with, oh, 3 ounces, and you snuggle up in your regular nursing place and sweetly offer your milk to your little one. And he LOSES IT. Purses his lips. Wrinkles his nose. Fusses. Screams. Chokes. Gags. Turns red, then purple with anger at this preposterous mom-substitute.

All that fear that your baby would prefer a bottle to your breast, and here you are, frustrated and heartbroken because you know your baby is going to need to take a bottle at some point, and she’s just got NO INTEREST in that idea.

So what do you do?

If you are pregnant or have a baby under 4 weeks:

There are some things you can do ahead of time to try to prevent this problem. I’m not going to swear any of this will work, but building your arsenal of tools here is a good idea, so you go in prepared.

The first thing I will say is going to go against a lot of what you have heard, and a lot of experts will disagree with me, but if you KNOW you will have to give your baby a bottle, and you are pretty confident that you are getting a good latch... don’t wait a month. The longer you wait, the less likely you will have a perfectly peaceful transition.

Now, if you are having latch problems in the beginning, or if you have any serious supply issues, you really do want to make sure you have that well under control before you let your little one take a bottle. It really can cause problems if your little one hasn’t become a little milk junkie and begun to love nursing. I will be brutally honest about this – some moms simply have a harder time with this than others. Some babies are boob junkies by a few days old with an awesome latch. Some babies at four weeks are still causing mom problems by latching poorly. If you have the second kind of baby, don’t trap yourself into thinking that time will fix it. Time won’t fix it. FIXING it will mean discovering the problem and probably getting some assistance. Call your local breastfeeding counselor, lactation consultant, OB, midwife, etc.

But the babies with trouble with taking a bottle tend to be the boob lovers. The milk junkies. The mama-addicts. And the older they get, the less likely they are to be fooled by the mom-substitute (bottle). Waiting until 4 weeks can create a challenge in babies who latch well and seem to really enjoy nursing. They know that nursing is what they are designed to do. They know it is the normal way to eat. It’s snuggly and warm and they’re with their awesome cuddly mamas, and it’s just natural. Waiting to give THOSE babies a bottle may haunt you in the future.

Now, I’m not saying when they are 2 days old, give them 3 or 4 bottles a day just to make sure they can take it. I’m just saying that when they are somewhere in the 2-3 week range, start trying. Don’t overdo it – one every couple of days will help them get used to the idea and should be infrequent enough that they continue to prefer nursing.

Another thing you can do ahead of time is make sure they spend at least some quality time in the arms of someone else. Let them know they can be nurtured by someone that is not you. Let them get used to the smells of dad or partner or grandma or friend. Let them get used to the feeling of being held and loved by other people.

If you are already there, and your baby doesn’t want a bottle:

Get out. The first thing you MUST remember is that most babies who don’t immediately take a bottle are going to have a hard time taking one if mom is there. GET OUT OF THE HOUSE. They can quite literally SMELL YOU THERE! They aren’t going to be fooled by the bottle if you are just in the other room. Go away. Grocery shop, get a pedicure, go to a movie, whatever. Let dad or grandma do it.

But what if the baby cries? He might. He might cry a lot. But it’s not like you are leaving him alone in a room and walking away. You are leaving him in the arms of someone who loves him and can comfort him in other ways besides feeding. It WILL be okay. He will not starve. You won’t be gone that long, because let’s face it, the separation will make you all anxious and twitchy. Get out.

Be patient. Some babies will get it on the first try. Some just won’t. Don’t get too worked up. If you stress, she will stress. Soothe in as many ways as possible and try to keep it low key. Just like with nursing, you want to try at the earliest signs of hunger so baby won’t be wayyy too hungry when it’s time to try. Limit your attempts to 10 minutes. Anything past that with a mad baby is going to piss her off further and make it that much less likely to drink the bottle the next time you try. Try again after she has been calm awhile. Or go ahead and nurse, and try again at the next feeding or the next day.

Make it like nursing: Some babies do much better with taking the bottle if the caregiver makes it as much like nursing as possible. Hold the baby in the same way. Give the bottle in the position you generally nurse in. Give the bottle at the same time your baby would normally nurse.

Make it different than nursing: Some babies do much better if taking the bottle is treated as a completely different activity than nursing. It will be clear pretty quickly if you try the above technique and it bombs. Go to a different room. Try a different position (I always ended up getting my boys to take a bottle sitting up in my lap with their head on my chest and facing away). Try going outside if the weather is nice. Whatever it takes to be different.

Make sure they know what it is. Imagine you have been nursing happily along for a month, and then someone tries to put a cold piece of silicone in your mouth. You don’t know what it is, you don’t know what comes out of it, you just know that it’s not mom and you don’t want it. A nursing baby isn’t going to immediately recognize a bottle as something that has food in it. Try keeping the nipple in your bra for a while so it smells like you. When the bottle is ready, dip the tip of it in the milk so when it comes near baby’s mouth she can smell and taste it. Sleep with a burp cloth in your shirt and have whoever is giving the bottle wrap it around the bottle so your smell is nearby. Anything that can associate the bottle with you OUT OF YOUR PRESENCE is a good thing.

Bait and switch. This method is often recommended  for moms who are trying to get babies to latch after having been too used to the bottle, but it works this way as well for some moms. If you can get your little one nursing happily, especially at a sleepy time, try gently removing the baby from the breast and slipping the bottle in. Sometimes babies will take to a bottle if they start getting the milk right away in this situation. Try dipping the nipple in the milk first to make the transition a little more seamless.

Don’t give up too easily. Hungry babies will eat. I will tell you that in my own life, I had a miserable time with this with my first son. We tried for 2 months to give him the bottle. We didn’t try often enough – -one every 4 or 5 days, and I was usually in the house somewhere – but we gave is what I thought at the time was a reasonable effort. He refused the bottle the first 3 days of day care. Everyone was miserable. He nursed ALLLLLLL night long those first days, and I was going back to work and pretty tired already. Night nursing is not a bad thing, and is more or less inevitable for most moms, but 5-6 feedings in a night because little man didn’t want to drink a bottle is pretty untenable. On the fourth day of day care, he gave in. He drained his bottles all day, and pretty much never looked back. In fact, I had a terrible time weaning him OFF the bottle eventually! I have heard of a few rare cases where babies simply wouldn’t take a bottle away from mom, but in general, if a baby is away from mom for long enough and often enough because she is at work or school, the baby WILL give in and take a bottle. But it really is more pleasant to master the bottle ahead of time if you can!

Keep it warm. Milk straight from mom’s breast during nursing is super warm. Just the right temperature, in fact. If you are giving a bottle, the milk will cool as it sits out. Sometimes babies will take a bottle at first and then stop in a minute or two. Try running it under warm water or letting it sit in a pot of warm water for a minute or two. Sometimes babies just want the comfort of the warmth. My younger son liked his bottle milk very warm. If I pumped fresh milk for a bottle, he still preferred it if I warmed it up a tad first! Just make sure to swirl (NEVER shake) the milk to even out the temperature and test it on the inside of your wrist to make sure it’s not too hot.

Still have questions? Contact Megan if you need more assistance!

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