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Refusing the Breast

Sheila Fitzgerald
Irvine CA USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 3, May-June 2004, pp. 91-4

Two weeks before Meaghan's first birthday, she went on a food strike. She refused all forms of solid or liquid foods and refused to nurse. Prior to this, Meaghan was nursing every three hours or so during the day and one to two times during the night. She had not been incredibly interested in solid foods, although she did nibble on them at meal times and periodically throughout the day. So when she totally refused to nurse one Friday, I was totally taken off guard.

Meaghan always had a very obvious way of indicating she wants to nurse. But when I put her to my breast that day, she turned away, screamed, and arched her back. Even though she was indicating very clearly that she wanted to nurse, I could not get her to take my breast. I could not get her to take food or fluids at all unless I used a syringe.

By late morning on Saturday there was still no sign that she would start nursing again. She was cranky and hungry, indicating she wanted to nurse, but continued to scream and arch her back whenever she saw the breast. She would not take a cup or bottle either. I proceeded to feed her with a syringe and made an appointment at the urgent care center to have her checked for ear infections or other underlying medical conditions. The doctor said that there was nothing wrong and was clearly skeptical about the existence of "nursing strikes." So we didn't get much help there.

I was miserable. Meaghan was miserable, but still she would not nurse. I did finally get her to eat some yogurt with a spoon Saturday night, but she was cranky and indicated the desire to nurse. Still, she would turn away, scream, and arch her back whenever I offered the breast. Her two-year-old brother, Kyle, was concerned watching his little sister screaming and his mother crying. He would touch my face and softly say "Mommy?" A nursing strike really does affect the whole family.

Meaghan is my fourth child and I've been actively involved with La Leche League since my first daughter was born over 10 years ago, so I had some ideas of how to handle a nursing strike. I tried relaxing in a warm tub of water and offering the breast. I tried lying skin to skin in bed. We coslept. I knew in my head that this "episode" was most likely related to her teething, but I was so miserable with engorgement, feelings of rejection, and plugged ducts after more than 24 hours of no nursing. I just was not thinking clearly. My husband, who is usually very supportive of breastfeeding, responded, "Maybe she is ready to wean."

I took her to her regular pediatrician on Monday. He told me her throat was red and it most likely hurt her to suck and swallow, thus the refusal of all forms of food. He told me it was probably a viral infection and to keep feeding with the syringe until it resolved. Hopefully, she would resume nursing. I was told to take things one day at a time and do what was best for my baby. She had lost almost an entire pound by this time as well. After four more days of giving fluids with a syringe, Meaghan started to accept the cup. This was a start.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to offer the breast when she indicated the desire to nurse. She continued to refuse, but gradually, with less distress. She no longer screamed and arched her back. She would just turn away and try to get down and crawl away. Sometimes, she would even point at my breast before she declined, and once she even took my breast into her mouth before changing her mind. She started eating more solids and began taking fluids better with a cup. We went to almost every La Leche League meeting offered in my area over the course of that first month and tried everything they suggested. The support I received helped to relieve the frustration and tension I was feeling.

It has now been two months and Meaghan has not resumed nursing. I will most likely never know why she declined to resume her usual routine of nursing. I have found mothering without nursing is not as easy in the early years, especially for those of us who have experienced the benefits of extended breastfeeding. It is a lot more challenging to calm Meaghan when she is upset than it was when she was nursing. I will continue to miss the quiet times Meaghan and I enjoyed with Kyle snuggling in close, trying to make her laugh. I have been grateful for the support of my La Leche League friends during this trying and stressful time. I know mothering is more than having a breastfeeding relationship.

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