Well Being

Toddler Nursing Strike or Self-Weaning?

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Many children nurse well into toddlerhood. If a toddler suddenly stops nursing altogether, there are two possible causes: (1) a toddler nursing strike triggered by an illness, teething, or emotional event, or (2) self-weaning. How can you tell the difference, and what can be done to end a toddler nursing strike?

Toddler Nursing Strike Versus Self-Weaning

Teething toddler by Jenn_Jenn

Teething toddler by Jenn_Jenn

When you are faced with a toddler who suddenly stops nursing, it can be baffling and upsetting. The child you once soothed easily at the breast now turns away in frustration, or worse, bites you! As you try to figure out what is going on, consider the following:

1. Age of the nursling. A baby rarely self-weans before the age of 18 months. The closer a toddler gets to age three, the more likely it might be actual self-weaning, but don't rely on age alone.

2. Prior frequency of nursing. Was the child nursing once or twice a day, or nursing every 2-3 hours? Did the child require nursing to sleep for naps and bedtime? The more frequently a child was nursing, the more likely it is a strike.

3. Mood of the nursling. Is your nursling acting upset and is he or she difficult to soothe? Is your toddler happy as a clam and busily going about the day? Of course if your child seems unhappy about the turn of events, it's probably not self-weaning.

4. Event that could trigger a strike. Is your toddler teething or sick? Did you recently yelp when your toddler clamped down on the nipple, or did you reprimand your toddler for something? Examine the possible causes for a nursing strike.

Things to Try to End a Toddler Nursing Strike

When faced with a nursing strike, you want to pump or hand-express to keep up your supply and prevent engorgement, plugged ducts and mastitis. Continue offering the breast without unduly pressuring the child. Try offering as the child is drifting off to sleep or just waking up. Then consider the reasons for a strike, which will give you ideas for how to end it!

The book Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma J. Bumgarner is a wonderful resource and it does not disappoint on the topic of toddler nursing strikes (see pp. 211-212). It lists two of the first potential causes to consider for a nursing strike as a stuffy nose and/or a sore mouth from teething. Keep in mind that biting is often a sign of teething. You can try various pain-relieving techniques to see if any help with the teething and make it more comfortable for your toddler to nurse.

One seemingly crazy trick to try with the stuffy nose is squirting some breast milk in the nostrils (either directly from the breast using clean hands to express, or by pumping and using a dropper or cup). It's messy and your child might resist it, but it only takes a few drops and it can definitely help clear a stuffy nose, strange as it sounds. Alternatively you can ask your doctor about a saline solution that is appropriate to try to clear his nasal passages.

One other physical cause to consider: a broken tooth. Sometimes a toddler will let someone get a good look in the mouth if you hold the child in your lap, facing you, and then lay the child's head back on your knees while another adult faces you both and gets a look in the child's mouth.

I would wonder about an ear infection, sinus infection, injury or anything else that could be making it painful for the toddler to suck.

Toddler nursing strikes can also be caused by hurt feelings over a reprimand or being made to do something the child didn't want to do. Depending on how verbal your toddler is, you can try to ask about this. Your toddler might not even know the reason for the strike, and you may never know. You can try verbalizing it for your child, with something like, “I can tell something was bothering you and you did not want to nurse. I would like to make it all better so we can try nursing again. I love you and want you to be happy. How about we try nursing in the bathtub (or another favorite, relaxing place).” You know your child best and what might work. The idea is to validate your child's feelings even if your child cannot verbalize them.

Keep trying different things to see if anything helps. Strikes can go on for days, but hopefully your child can be coaxed back sooner rather than later with all that you are doing to try to help. If a couple of weeks have passed and your child happily goes about the day and readily accepts other means of nourishment and comfort, then it might be time to consider that your child has ended the nursing relationship. It can be a particularly emotional time if you were not the one to initiate the end of nursing. Take pride in the knowledge that you met your child's needs and the need for nursing went away.

Your Experience

Have you ever dealt with a toddler nursing strike or self-weaning? What happened and how did you handle it?