Three Ways to get a Breastfed Baby That Won’t Take a Bottle to Drink
What do you do if your baby won't take a bottle?
- Assess the health of the baby's mouth for sores, thrush, and new teeth. A sick baby that isn't drinking milk needs to see the pediatrician immediately.
- For a healthy baby, place them in a baby carrier facing out.
- Take them for a walk.
- Gently pat them up and down to distract and calm them down.
- Place the bottle of warm mother's milk in the mouth.
- Keep walking as long as the baby is calm until they drink.
These steps relax the baby and hopefully trigger their natural reflex to suck. This is the number one recommended way and it worked for our daughter. Keep reading to learn more details and additional methods to help get a baby to drink from a bottle or sippy cup.
Here's How We Got Our Baby to Take a Bottle
Having a breastfed baby take a bottle is incredibly convenient (with formula or breastmilk), but it can be tricky. For the easiest transition, give breastfeeding babies (that have been breastfed from birth) a bottle no later than six weeks after they are born. After the six-week period, most babies will want nothing to do with the bottle, but if you are attempting after this six-week marker, I can help. We gave our daughter a bottle at six weeks (she took it beautifully), then we didn't give her a bottle on a consistent basis after this. At about 3 months old, we tried again and she rejected the bottle.
We sought the expert advice of a lactation consultant and the best-selling author of The Nursing Mother's Companion, Kathleen Huggins to learn how to get a baby to take a bottle. She gave us these tips on dealing with a baby that is rejecting a bottle and even a sippy cup. Here's what we did, and it worked!
Step 1: Prepare a Bottle of Breastmilk or Formula for the Baby
Prepare a Bottle of Breast Milk
For breastfeeding babies that won't take a bottle, it's best to use breast milk. However, if there isn't breast milk available or the mother's milk supply is limited, then use a bottle made with formula.
Prepare a bottle that is the same temperature as mother's milk. It's important to follow the guidelines for creating a bottle that is free of bacteria and germs so that they aren't inadvertently introduced to the baby's mouth.
- Wash your hands before touching the bottle
- Make sure all bottle parts have been sterilized
- Follow the instructions to create the bottle from formula or make sure the breast milk was properly pumped and stored before adding it to the bottle
- Be sure to use a low flow bottle nipple, preferably a number 1. Some lactation experts recommend a nipple that most closely resembles the mother's nipple.
- Milk should be warm to the touch. Once warmed, shake the bottle for a consistent temperature. You can put a small amount of milk on the inside of your wrist to check the temperature. Do NOT microwave the milk as there can be parts of the milk that is extremely hot.
One of the few things worse than a baby that is refusing to eat is a sick one, so be sure that the bottle is prepared properly and the baby's mouth is healthy!
If your baby is refusing a bottle when it's placed in their mouth, check for thrush, sores and or blisters before proceeding. If any of these conditions exist, see your pediatrician.
Step 2: Take the Baby for a Walk in a Baby Holder Facing Out
Go for a Walk With Your Baby in a Carrier like a Baby Bjorn
Now that you have your bottle ready, it's time to get started. Let's go for a stroll!
- Take your baby for a casual walk. If your baby is upset she will likely begin to calm down.
- Face the baby outward in the baby holder where she can see and become distracted. This is especially important if the mother is taking the baby for a walk and the baby really craves skin-to-skin contact while feeding. Having the baby's head facing the mother's breast on the walk should be avoided. It's best if someone other than the mother attempts these steps as it can be more difficult for a mother to bottle feed a baby when the infant is used to breastfeeding from her.
- The Baby Bjorn is a great carrier because it frees up both of the hands of the person walking the baby. You will see why this is important in the next steps.
Step 3: Using One Hand, Gently Pat the Baby from Underneath
While Walking, Gently Pat the Baby From Underneath
- Using one of your free hands, reach under the baby and gently and slowly pat her on the bottom raising her up and down about an inch.
- Find an easy rhythm to your patting. This bouncing motion soothes and will likely distract her. Do this for at least a few minutes until the baby appears to be calm and relaxed.
- You can calmly talk or sing to your baby, too. You want your child to be calm and relaxed before you give them a bottle. A sleepy baby is fine, but, as most parents know, there is a fine line between being sleepy and overly tired and fussy. A crying child is unlikely to take the bottle. If your baby gets to this point, you will want to try again at another time so you both don't end up frustrated and unhappy.
Step 4: Put the Bottle in the Baby's Mouth and Hold Steady for Sucking
Getting the Baby to Suck from the Bottle
It is now time to get your baby to drink milk from the bottle.
- While your baby is calm and distracted, slip the bottle into her mouth with your free hand.
- Continue to pat her on the bottom to keep her moving up and down. It's very common for babies to let the bottle rest in their mouth for several moments. We are relying on the baby's natural sucking reflex. The idea is that she isn't thinking about eating, but with the fresh air from the walk, and the bouncing motion, her instinctive sucking reflex will kick in, and she will begin to bottle feed.
- Continue walking and patting the baby with the bottle in her mouth until she begins to drink.
If your baby doesn't drink the bottle right away or pushes it away, remove the bottle from her view and continue to walk and pat her. You can try again in a few minutes. Talk gently to her; this is supposed to be a positive experience. If you get frustrated or angry, she could equate those emotions with the bottle. If you feel yourself getting frustrated, (which happens to even the most experienced parents and caregivers) try again another day.
Once a Baby Takes a Bottle, Continue to Give a Bottle Twice a Week
Once your baby starts taking a bottle, be sure to keep giving it to her at least twice a week. Like I stated earlier, our daughter took a bottle at 6 weeks and we thought she wouldn't have any problems in the future, but that wasn't the case. At 3 months she wouldn't take the bottle and we had to seek the advice of the lactation consultant. After following these instructions she once again began to drink from a bottle. However, there were numerous afternoons of us trying to give her a bottle and her refusing it - frustrating.
A Second Way to Get Your Baby to Take a Bottle: Dream Feeding with a Bottle
Dream feeding is feeding the baby by bottle or breastfeeding after she has gone to bed at night but hasn't woken up for the first nighttime feeding. Dream feeding is done while the baby is mostly asleep. Often parents will dream feed a baby right before they go to bed to help their child sleep through the night and allow the parent a few more hours of uninterrupted sleep. The benefit of giving a baby a bottle during this dream feeding stage is that the baby is more likely to rely on the sucking reflex and isn't as aware of the circumstances. We tried this method as well and it worked... sometimes.
Here's how we did it. My wife would pick the baby up while she was asleep and begin nursing her. Then, after she had sufficiently latched on to the breast and is solidly breastfeeding, she stopped nursing by popping her off and quickly placed the bottle in the babies mouth. If she started sucking, she would usually finish the bottle of milk. Sometimes the baby is so tired they will not take the bottle and will go back to sleep when they come off the breast.
A Third Technique to Try to Get a Baby to Take a Bottle
Since my wife had success with getting our daughter to take a bottle by switching from breastfeeding to the bottle while dream feeding, I decided to try a similar technique that worked as well.
- I placed my daughter on my legs with my feet propped up so she was at a 45-degree angle
- I gave her a pacifier for about five seconds - just long enough for her to stop crying and start sucking.
- I removed the pacifier from her mouth, and I switched to the bottle in less than half a second.
- Bingo! She was drinking like a champ from the bottle.
I think the key to having success with a bottle is capitalizing on the sucking reflex and not just giving the baby the bottle before they are sucking. The quick switch avoids nipple confusion (breast nipple vs bottle nipple) because they're drinking before they realize the bottle has been switched in place of the breast. When we gave her the bottle first, she would just push the bottle nipple out of her mouth. By giving her a pacifier or distracting her first, she started the sucking reflex.
It was our experience that inspired me to create this guide. Please leave a comment about your experience to help other people in similar situations.
Try Switching Out a Pacifier for a Bottle
Additional Tips for Getting a Baby to Take a Bottle
- Try holding the baby (someone other than the mother) in a nursing position and giving her a bottle
- Smile at your baby and talk to her in an encouraging way as you give them the bottle.
- Have mom leave the house. Babies can smell their mom and may be more willing to take the bottle if she's not around.
- Don't wait until your baby is extremely hungry or tired. Usually, this tactic won't work and will leave everyone upset and exhausted.
- Try different types of bottle nipples. Sometimes a baby will prefer one nipple over another.
- If you are frustrated and find yourself getting upset - STOP and try again at another time.
- Talk to your doctor or a lactation specialist if you continue to struggle to get your baby to take a bottle. There are wonderful, free resources like the La Leche League.
Giving a baby a bottle multiple times a day in the first weeks of their life can result in the baby not wanting to breastfeed and the mother's milk supply to decrease. Most bottle nipples dispense milk quicker than a breast and babies may prefer them. I wouldn't advice giving a baby a bottle until you have talked to your doctor, the mother's milk has sufficiently come in, and the baby is comfortable nursing (around 6 weeks). After 6 weeks, one bottle every day or two is usually sufficient for the baby to continue taking the bottle for the next year.
Always talk to your pediatrician before giving your child a bottle or if you have any concerns.
Why Should I Give My Baby a Bottle?
There are multiple reasons you may want to give your child a bottle, but the baby's health must come first:
- Provide mom a bit of a break from breastfeeding and sleep!
- Give dad/grandma/grandpa/sibling another way to bond with baby
- Mom is going back to work and baby will be transitioning to child care
- Mom is going away for a few days
- Mom's milk production isn't sufficient for the health of the baby
Questions & Answers
We are desperately trying to get my 3-month-old to take the bottle, but she refuses. We were told to keep trying, but we’ve seen no progress. We’ve tried everything except taking her out in a front-facing carrier because we’ve heard it’s unsafe to carry newborns facing out til they’re six months. Do you have any advice on what we could do?
Young babies need head support, so instead of facing out, face her in. The concept is that the baby is moving, relaxed and the natural sucking reflex kicks in. When the baby is facing out, there is more to see and distract them, but if there are any safety concerns, adjust the technique to make sure the baby is well supported.
My child is eight months old and refuses the bottle. My breast milk is not coming in very well, and I need to get her to take a bottle or cup. My friend tried, my husband has tried; what am I supposed to do?
We know it can be very frustrating when an infant won't take a bottle. For breastfeeding women with limited milk supply, a baby formula is an option. We recommend trying the steps in the article when the baby is well rested and comfortable. Pediatricians often have nursing hotlines available to call and get an assessment. It's recommended to contact your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.
I'm caring for a ten week old breastfed baby who hates every bottle he's ever met. He also refuses pacifiers. I've resorted to squirting milk in his mouth .5mL at a time. Tips?
Take him for a walk and when he's happy and distracted, try giving him the bottle or pacifier per the article's instructions. You can also try a clean finger to see if his sucking reflex starts.
My child is eight months old and won't take a bottle or cup. I’m returning to work, what should I do?
We frequently hear how stressful it is when parents are returning to work, and a baby won’t take a bottle or cup. Most lactation experts recommend establishing breastfeeding before introducing a bottle to avoid nipple confusion at 4 to 6 weeks of age. If a bottle hasn’t been introduced, begin working on it four plus weeks before it’s mandatory that the baby drinks from a source other than the breast. The steps in this article are ideas to try, but a personal consultation with a lactation expert may be needed.
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