May 3, 2023 • 6 min read

What to Do if Your Baby Refuses to Breastfeed but Will Take a Bottle

Medically Reviewed by Kim Langdon, MD on 05.03.23
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Breastfeeding is one of the most priceless things a new mother can do to give her baby the best start in life, as well as for her own future health.

There are some situations, however, where a mother or lactating parent initially intends to exclusively breastfeed, but for any number of reasons introduces a bottle in the early newborn days, which can possibly lead to bottle preference.

Babies often prefer bottles because it is almost always easier for a baby to drink from due to an increased flow of milk.

Milk, in even the slowest flow bottle nipple, will drip out by gravity if the bottle is turned upside down. Even if an infant has difficulty sucking, simply compressing the bottle nipple will make the milk come out. Babies often prefer the easier way that requires little to no effort, especially if they are having difficulty nursing.

If your baby refuses to breastfeed but will take the bottle, there are some things you can do to help, such as developing a feeding plan, pumping regularly, trying new positions, and many more.

This guide will go over what to do if your baby refuses the breast but will take a bottle. Through patience, trial and error, and time, bottle preference can often be overcome, and most babies will be able to feed at the breast again.

Why your baby may take a bottle but refuse to breastfeed

Breastfeeding is natural, but it is also learned. There are many reasons a baby may have difficulty latching on or sustaining a latch. Some of these reasons include:

  • Preterm or late preterm birth
  • Sleepiness
  • Minimal to no skin-to-skin contact
  • Mom has flat or inverted nipples
  • Baby has oral restrictions (lip and/or tongue ties)
  • Traumatic birth
  • Body tension in the infant from a position in utero and birth
  • Early supplementation with a nipple versus an alternative

Babies will generally respond to the flow of the bottle instinctively. This can quickly turn into a bottle or flow preference even in babies who were previously latching well. It is suggested to wait until breastfeeding is well established to introduce a bottle, when possible, for this reason.

Here are some reasons why a baby may prefer the bottle over breastfeeding:

  • A bottle was introduced before breastfeeding was well established
  • A slow-flow bottle and paced feeding technique were not used
  • The immediate gratification of instant flow from the bottle
  • Requires minimal to no effort to get milk
  • Flow is faster than from the breast
  • Bottle nipple is easier for baby to latch on to than the breast

What to do if your baby refuses to breastfeed but will take a bottle

If your baby will take a bottle but is unwilling or unable to breastfeed, it is important to protect your milk supply while working towards transitioning back to breast. You will need to pump in place of each feeding to protect and promote milk volume.

A quality, double-electric breast pump is recommended over a portable or wearable pump when exclusively pumping. Be sure your pump flanges are correctly sized to help effectively empty milk from the breasts.

While you’re pumping, you can also be working toward successful breastfeeding. Mary Allers-Korostynski, IBCLC, one of Zaya’s certified lactation consultants says, “There are so many things to try!”

“First,” she explains, “just good old-fashioned skin-to-skin contact in a relaxing environment in a laidback position. Try at different times of day when baby is showing feeding cues but not overly hungry.”

She adds: “There are also several breastfeeding devices that can assist in the transition that are very clever! Using a slow-flow nipple and learning to pace bottle feedings is key to slowing the milk flow down. This will help your baby become more accustomed to a slower flow that requires some patience and effort.”

Here are some more tips for what to do if your baby refuses to breastfeed but will take a bottle:

First, make sure there aren’t any major issues

Before trying any of the following, it’s important to make sure your baby doesn’t have any major issues that could prevent him or her from breastfeeding, such as:

  • Tethered oral tissue (tongue/lip ties)
  • Other underlying medical issues with baby
  • Anatomical issues with the mother, such as flat or inverted nipples (a nipple shield can help in this case)

Keep pumping to ensure you always have enough milk for your baby

The number one rule is to feed the baby while working through these challenges. In the early weeks, it is ideal to pump to empty the breasts 8 to 10 times per day.

You can learn more about how to combine breastfeeding and pumping here and how much you should pump and how it works here.

Develop a feeding plan

Most babies need to feed a minimum of every 3 hours in the early days, however, when trying to encourage a baby to breastfeed directly, consider feeding on demand to mimic how a breastfed baby eats. Try not to wait until the baby is very hungry to offer the breast.

Try new positions

Some babies are more likely to latch in various positions. Biological nursing, aka laid-back breastfeeding, is known to support both infant and maternal reflexes. Other positions to consider trying are football and side-lying.

Try bottle feeding for a few minutes then switching to breastfeeding

This bait-and-switch technique can work, especially when the baby is hungry and/or cranky. Often when a baby is calmer towards the end of a feeding, they are more likely to be receptive to latching on.

Express some milk before feeding to entice the baby

Allowing the baby to smell and taste some expressed milk and coating the tongue will commonly motivate the baby to latch to the breast.

Offer your breast while your baby is sleepy

This is a low-pressure way to encourage latching, and when your baby is sleepy, they are usually calmer.

Offer the breast while bathing with your baby

Co-bathing offers a calm and low-pressure environment that is similar to the womb. Many babies who have had difficulty latching will latch while co-bathing.

It’s recommended to wait until the umbilical cord has fallen off to fully submerge a newborn in water.

Keep breastfeeding fun for your baby

Avoid making latching attempts so long and drawn out that your baby becomes frustrated, as this can lead to breast aversion. The desire is for the baby to have a positive association with the breast versus a negative one.

When your baby gets upset, take a break and you can always try again later.

Try a nursing vacation

This involves taking your baby to bed with you for a full day or more and spending the time together with you shirtless and your baby in their diaper only. Spend the time resting, bonding, and offering the breast anytime your baby shows feeding cues.

Consider a nipple shield

If a baby has become accustomed to the texture of an artificial nipple, sometimes a nipple shield can work as a bridge to transition the baby back to breast.

It is important to work with a lactation professional to be sure you learn how to use a nipple shield correctly and know how to protect your milk supply.

Consult with a lactation consultant

If none of the above work, you should consider working with a lactation consultant to help.

A lactation consultant will take a thorough history and provide support to create a plan for transitioning back to breast, making appropriate referrals as needed.

How a lactation consultant can help if your baby refuses to breastfeed

An IBCLC is a lactation consultant who has completed 1 of 3 rigorous pathways that include 14 college courses, 200 to 1000 hours assisting breastfeeding families, and 95 lactation-specific education hours.

Once these requirements have been met, the candidate must take and pass a board examination. This credential is considered to be the gold standard in lactation support.

IBCLCs are clinicians and allied health professionals who treat both the lactating parent and child. They provide lactation education and support from the prenatal period and throughout the breastfeeding dyad’s journey through weaning.

A lactation consultant may introduce the following in your feeding plan:

  • A nipple shield. If a baby has become accustomed to the texture of an artificial nipple, sometimes a nipple shield can work as a bridge to transition the baby back to breast. An IBCLC will teach you how to use a nipple shield correctly, know how to protect your milk supply, and how to wean from the shield.
  • A Supplemental Nursing System (SNS). This is a small tube taped beside the nipple that allows the baby to be supplemented at the breast. If the baby is able to latch, but has a flow preference, the flow can be adjusted to be faster through the tube as training wheels to entice the baby to begin nursing again.

Depending on your individual situation and history, your IBCLC may have a multitude of other ideas to try to get your baby to go back to the breast again.

Mary Allers-Korostynski, IBCLC, says, “Expect a lot of encouragement!  She will try different positions and devices, and give you a feeding plan working toward your goal.  Patience is key and understanding that your baby is learning a skill and needs practice.” 

She adds: “Remember, this will happen on the baby’s timeline, so patience is important. You won’t know until you try!”

Leslie Owens is an RN and IBCLC who has served families in the perinatal and breastfeeding support space for over 10 years. She is a wife and mother of 3 breastfed children, including a set of twins. She owns and operates a private practice called Mother Nurture Maternity, located just outside of Atlanta.