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Is Your Baby Refusing the Bottle? Here’s What You Need to Know...

baby baby health bottle feeding breastfeeding combo-feeding Jun 03, 2024

Having a baby refuse the bottle can be a stressful experience for parents. 

I know...I’ve been there.

While working in lactation before Elliot was born, I said I would NEVER have a baby who refused a bottle.

A couple of years, a handful of feeding issues, and a weeklong vacation later, Elliot completely stopped taking a bottle.

I was lucky enough to be able to adjust my schedule to breastfeed him, throughout the day, but that changed when I went on a pre-scheduled trip when he was 5.5 months old.

We needed a solution to feeding him because we could not get him to take more than ½ ounce - and half of that amount ended up on his clothes.

After trying the tricks I read online in the months leading up to it, Nate mixed baby cereal with my pumped breastmilk and fed him via a spoon. It got the job done but wasn’t ideal.

I then focused my energy on getting him to take a straw cup, which worked so-so.

We started daycare at 9 months and I made a baby food/baby cereal/breastmilk/formula slurry and put them in pouches, which he took like a champ (you can watch my reel about it here) ​​

To make a long story even longer, I understand the frustration. I was lucky enough to hold off on daycare until Elliot was on solids. I know not everyone is in the same situation and that is why I want to help YOU.

Whether you're transitioning from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding, or your baby has suddenly decided they no longer want the bottle, understanding why this happens and how to manage it can help ease the process. 

In this post, I’ll explore the causes of bottle refusal, identify what it looks like, and provide practical tips to overcome it.

 

What is Bottle Refusal?

Bottle refusal is when a baby persistently rejects the bottle, showing frustration, difficulty or reluctance to drink from it. 

This can happen at any stage, but it often happens around 3-4 months once the baby’s suck reflex has been integrated.

Parents often report that babies used to take a bottle well, but they stopped giving a bottle for XYZ reason and they no longer will take it.

Sometimes it appears that the baby is playing with the bottle nipple, can’t figure out what to do with the nipple or that the baby pushes the bottle out of the mouth.

 >>> Have you tried ALL the things and your baby is still refusing the bottle? Let's work together to find a solution! <<<

What Causes a Baby to Refuse a Bottle?

I want to spend a second distinguishing between two types of bottle refusal:

Situational or temporary

Non-situational

  • Situational: Babies may refuse or not be interested in bottles for short periods due to circumstances like teething (see more below), colds, ear infections, changes in routine, or milk temperature.

  • Non-situational: Babies are otherwise healthy and are primarily or exclusively fed at the breast. They struggle to switch from the breast to a bottle, even if they were previously taking a bottle well.

Situational bottle refusal or decreased appetite will resolve once baby’s health improves. Non-situational bottle refusal often requires extra help from a lactation professional or medical team.

 

What Does Bottle Refusal Look Like?

Bottle refusal can manifest in various ways. Some common signs include:

Turning away: The baby turns their head away from the bottle.

Crying: The baby cries or fusses when the bottle is offered.

Pushing the bottle away: The baby uses their hands to push the bottle away.

Refusing to suck: The baby holds the bottle nipple in their mouth but refuses to suck.

Playing with the nipple: Baby moves their tongue around but won’t suck

Attempting to suck: Sometimes babies look like they want to take the bottle, but are unable to.

Babies with situational bottle refusal often have decreased appetites and may take smaller amounts than usual, though they still take some portion of the bottle whenever it is offered.

Recognizing these signs can help you identify bottle refusal early and take steps to address it.

 

Is Bottle Refusal a Phase and How Long Does Bottle Refusal Last?

For many babies, bottle refusal is situational and they will start taking a bottle. The duration can vary widely depending on the underlying cause. Some babies might refuse the bottle for a few days, while many babies never end up taking bottles.

If bottle refusal is due to teething or a temporary illness, it usually resolves once the baby feels better. However, if the refusal persists for an extended period, it might be necessary to explore other underlying issues or seek advice from a healthcare professional (like me).

 

Bottle Refusal and Teething

How do you know if bottle refusal is related to teething?

Teething is one reason a baby may refuse a bottle. 

The process of teething can cause gum discomfort and pain, making sucking on a bottle nipple uncomfortable. Signs that teething might be the cause of bottle refusal include:

- Drooling: Excessive drooling is a sign of teething.

- Chewing on Objects: The baby might chew on toys or their fingers to relieve gum pain.

- Irritability: Teething can make babies irritable and fussy.

- Swollen Gums: Red, swollen gums can indicate teething.

Here’s the deal: most teething babies STILL take bottles easily. Theoretically, if your baby is teething and refusing a bottle, they should start taking it once the pain is gone. You can try a dose of weight-based tylenol to see if it helps your baby take a bottle. If it doesn’t, your baby is likely not refusing a bottle because of teething. 

Not interested in tylenol? You can try offering a chilled teething ring before feeding to numb the gums or decrease the swelling.

Is your baby closer to 3 or 4 months? Yes - teething can affect babies this young, however, it happens more commonly right before teeth erupt through the gumline. 

If your baby is around this age and won’t keep a bottle in their mouth ever, there is likely something else going on.

 

How to Overcome Bottle Refusal & Bottle Refusal Tips

Bottle refusal can feel overwhelming to overcome - especially when it is not related to illness and is persistent.

There is a huge mental barrier when you are worried that your baby is not going to eat while you are separated.

I see moms who are considering quitting their jobs or driving to daycare twice per day to feed their baby.

These may work for some families, but sometimes it is not an option.

Some parents start solids early (like we did with Elliot) because baby has to eat.

Overcoming bottle refusal requires a lot of patience and some trial and error. Here are some tips to help:

  • Try Different Bottles and Nipple SHAPES: By the time parents ask for help, they have often tried 5+ different types of bottles. I’m less concerned about the bottles than I am about the nipple shape. You can try different shaped nipples and different flow rates. Some favorites are:

  • Make sure the flow is fast enough: paced bottle feeding is great in some situations. This is not one of them. Until we know why your baby is refusing a bottle, we don’t want to make getting milk harder than it should be. The flow of the nipple should be fast enough that your baby isn’t putting in so much effort, but slow enough that your baby isn’t gagging or sputtering.

  • Adjust milk temperature: Ensure the milk is at a comfortable temperature. Test different temperatures to see what your baby prefers. Generally, this is not the issue, but it’s something that is easy to try.

  • Change feeding positions: Try different feeding positions. Some babies prefer to be held upright, while others might like a cradled position. Choose a location that is not where mom breastfeeds. Sometimes swaying, bouncing on a yoga ball or being outside helps. You may also find success when your baby is laying on their back on the ground, though it is counterintuitive. Whatever you do, make sure your baby has good support while feeding.

  • Offer when calm: Offer the bottle when your baby is calm and not overly hungry or upset. Have you ever been hangry and then had someone try to give you food you didn’t want to eat? It would make you mad, too. 

  • Start slow: let your baby use the bottle nipple as a pacifier. Point the nipple upward toward to back to help your baby stabilize the bottle nipple. If they consistently start sucking, try a small amount of milk. Continue doing this without pressure once or twice per day if they are interested.
  • Try not to show your stress: Yes. It is scary and hard and frustrating, but babies pick up on that anxiety (easier said than done, right?).

  • Be Patient: Don't force the bottle. If you try to force your baby to eat, everyone will lose. If they start crying when they see the bottle, make sure to stop.

  • Consult a professional: If you’ve done ALL the things and your baby won’t take a bottle, it is time to ask for help. Click here for my Bottle Refusal Bootcamp.

 

Bottle Aversion vs. Bottle Refusal

It's important to distinguish between bottle refusal and bottle aversion. Bottle aversion is a more serious and persistent issue when baby starts associating negative emotions with the baby bottle.

Bottle aversion can develop if a baby has had negative feeding experiences, such as being force-fed, severe reflux or experiencing pain during feeding. Signs of bottle aversion include:

- Intense distress: Extreme crying or distress at the sight of the bottle.

- Complete Refusal: Persistent refusal to drink from the bottle even when hungry.

- Negative associations: The baby associates the bottle with discomfort or distress.

Addressing bottle aversion requires a gentle and patient approach, which may or may not be different than a bottle refusal approach.

 

How to Avoid Bottle Refusal

Preventing bottle refusal can save a lot of stress for both the baby and the parents. Here are some preventative measures:

  • Introduce the Bottle Early: If you're breastfeeding, introduce the bottle early when your baby still has a strong suck reflex, around 4-6 weeks, to help your baby get used to it.

  • Make It Routine: Regularly offer the bottle even if breastfeeding to keep your baby familiar with it.

  • Positive Associations: Create positive associations with bottle-feeding by ensuring the baby is comfortable and calm during feedings.

  • Avoid Pressure: Never force your baby to take the bottle. Forcing can create negative associations and lead to aversion.

  • Responsive Feeding: Follow your baby’s cues and offer the bottle when they are hungry and calm.

  • Regular Practice: Even if breastfeeding, offer the bottle every other day or more frequently.

Bottle refusal can be a challenging and stressful issue for parents. Remember, every baby is different, and what works for one might not work for another. If bottle refusal persists, you’ve tried everything or it becomes a significant concern, message me at [email protected] to talk about ways I can help or join my Bottle Refusal Bootcamp.

 

*This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase these products with my links, I will get a small percentage at no extra cost to you. This helps support my business and family.

>>> Tired of worrying about feeding your baby? Get personalized support so you can enjoy feeding your baby. <<<

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