Oh no! What to do When Your Baby Won’t Take a Bottle

It’s what nightmares are made of…. you’re a breastfeeding mom and after a few months, you’re longing for some independence.  You’ve stashed enough milk in the freezer to disappear for a week but all you need is a day out with your girlfriends.  You instruct your partner or babysitter to warm up your breastmilk and put it in a bottle when baby wakes up and you head out.  You’re just about to have your first sip of wine and you get the panicked phone call that the baby isn’t eating.  She’s pushing the bottle out with her tongue, screaming as soon as it comes near her, or turns her head away when he brings it toward her.  Your baby won’t take a bottle.  I feel for you mama.  I have been there (and still am occasionally!) and I have felt that same panic shoot through my body.  The first time Maverick wouldn’t take a bottle, it was as if I was watching all of my freedom (and drink dates) for the next year slip away from me.  If your baby won’t take a bottle or you want to avoid getting there in the first place, I have some critical info for you below that may help you get away from your little one for more than 3 hours at a time!

Baby won't take a bottle
Image by Gianna Keiko

When I first heard about other moms whose babies wouldn’t take bottles, I foolishly thought that it was just because they didn’t introduce the bottle young enough.  I mean, after all, Lily took the bottle right away at 9 weeks and never had a problem since then.  In fact, the bottle was the only way I could get her to eat while we were out in public or when she was teething.  She hated nursing when we were out and went through several nursing strikes while teething.  I would pump before I left the house and keep a bottle or two with me in my diaper bag. It was great and easy.  The bottle, for her, was simple.  We introduced the standard Dr. Brown’s bottle around 9 weeks and made sure to give it to her a couple of times a week. The bottle was actually the only thing that FINALLY made my oversupply go down.  Once I knew that she could take a bottle from someone else, I started gaining back some freedom and got lazy about pumping to replace feeds to maintain my supply.  Lily took a bottle for over a year but she was never just given it to hold on to, it was only to replace a nursing session which by 4 months were on a schedule. Eventually, we switched to sippy cups for breastmilk and she did just fine.

After giving birth to Maverick, I was very aware that every baby, especially boys and girls, is different.  More often than not, the babies I had heard of that didn’t take bottles were boys.  I wanted to be SURE I would not be stuck in breastfeeding hell because now that I’ve tasted a bit of mommy freedom, I really need it!  I knew I wanted to start the bottle as soon as our breastfeeding relationship was well established.  Besides the complications with my oversupply, breastfeeding clicked pretty quickly with Mav.  He had a great latch and at the beginning seemed to handle my oversupply well.  We decided to introduce a bottle at 2 weeks. Andy gave it to him and it went pretty well.  It took him a long time to get through the bottle with a preemie nipple so we switched to a level 1 and by 2 months were at a level 2.  Our night nurse continued to give him a bottle or two until he was sleeping through the night around 3 months.  He always did great taking a bottle from her.  I guess we thought that those 3 bottle feedings at night each week were enough to keep up his relationship with the bottle but we were wrong.

About 3 weeks ago, I was running errands and I got the call that Mav wouldn’t take a bottle from my husband, Andy. I figured it was a fluke so I tried again later that day to no avail.  We tried about 5 times between that day and the next day and he just wasn’t having it.  My night nurse had a baby who wouldn’t take a bottle for months and finally found that a bottle called the Joovy worked for her.   We Amazon Primed it and no dice.  We tried the glass Dr. Brown’s, regular Dr. Brown’s, Como Tomo, and Joovy.  He would just fiddle each nipple around in his mouth.  I remember after attempt number 15 or 20 just sitting on the couch and feeling my chest tighten.  How did I get here?  I thought I did all the right things and now I would be stuck attached at the hip (boob) with my baby with no way to get some me time.  I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.  What was I going to do?  He was 3 months old and I was finally feeling like I could start leaving him for a few hours at a time to get my life back.  

That same afternoon I found myself spiraling.  My anxiety gets the best of me a lot and I start thinking about the worst case scenario. I was about to torture myself by trying the same bottles again but as I was digging through the cabinet I found a bottle I hadn’t used before! I forgot that when my partnership with Lansinoh begun, they had sent me a breast pump that included the “mOmma” nipple for the bottles.  I had told the folks at Lansinoh that I wasn’t really interested in the bottles because the Dr. Brown’s had always worked so well for us.  Well, at this point my son won’t take a bottle at all so it is time to try anything.  We sanitized the bottle that night and agreed to try it in the morning. After he woke up from his first nap, I went into his room while keeping the lights off and tickled the bottle around his top lip.  To my great surprise…he latched!  I was SHOCKED.  No fiddling it around with his tongue, just a beautiful firm latch with lots of gulps. If I wasn’t tilting the bottle up enough, he would get frustrated and cry but as soon as I gave him access to more milk he was back to happily guzzling.  He drank SIX OUNCES that feed.  I wanted to call my Lansinoh contact and ask if I could kiss her!  Little did I know, the Lansinoh mOmma bottle is now actually being recommended by a lot of IBCLCs.

Unfortunately, Mav still doesn’t ALWAYS want his bottle.  From time to time he’ll refuse and wait until I’m around or until he’s really, really hungry to eat.  But the mOmma by Lansinoh is still the only bottle he’ll even entertain.  I can’t give you the foolproof solution for getting your baby to take a bottle or preventing them from refusing it to begin with because every baby is SO different, but I can give you suggestions from respected lactation consultants, other moms, and myself to help you along the way.

First things first: DON’T PANIC

You’re probably virtually rolling your eyes at me right now if your baby won’t take a bottle but I have to say it.  I totally understand that if you’re a working mom and your child only wants you that you might be really freaking out but here are a couple of things to think about:

  1. Your baby will only be taking bottles for so long.  Some lactation consultants are actually able to help babies learn how to drink from sippy cups at as young as 4 months old and typically by 6 months they’ll get the hang of it.  If your baby won’t take a bottle it doesn’t mean they’ll refuse the sippy cup.  Can’t hurt to try!
  2. Babies can sense our anxiety.  Children are much smarter and in-tune than we give them credit for.  The more you panic the worse the situation will get, for both of you.
  3.  Your baby will likely not starve him or herself to death. This may seem cruel, but it’s true. Eventually, they will get hungry enough to eat.  Remember, there are some women whose milk supplies completely dry up in a very short amount of time. Those children don’t have a choice and are forced to bottle feed. Your baby WILL eat…. eventually. There is also something called reverse cycling where babies won’t eat much all day long and then get all their feedings in overnight from mom.  Obviously NOT ideal, but could work in a worst-case scenario!  

Now, let’s talk about how to properly introduce a bottle from the beginning.

  1. Ideally, you will want to introduce your baby to a bottle as soon as your breastfeeding relationship is well established, or between 4-8 weeks after birth.  There is no need to shove a bottle in your baby’s mouth the day you bring them home but you certainly want to get him used to it before all they know is your breast.  Keep in mind, you can introduce baby sooner, as long as everything with nursing is going smoothly.
  2. There is no such thing as nipple confusion.  You will hear the term “nipple confusion” over and over again.  Let me demystify this for you… babies do not get “confused” by the shape of the nipple. What causes problems is the FLOW of the milk.  Many moms have average to slow milk flow, so if you introduce a bottle with a much faster flow, you run the risk of baby liking the bottle better than the breast.  The reverse is also true, if your milk is faster and you introduce baby to a slow flow bottle they may get so frustrated they refuse the bottle.  Now, that’s not to say that some babies won’t prefer other bottle nipple shapes to others but they will not get “confused” by the nipple and you certainly will not be able to trick a baby into thinking that a bottle nipple is yours!  Try to gauge how fast your milk is when picking a nipple but an IBCLC can always help! With my oversupply, we had the best luck with skipping the preemie nipples and going right to size 1 (0-3 month) and by 2 months we switched to level 2.  
  3. Pick the right bottle:  Most IBCLCs will recommend the standard Dr. Brown’s bottle in a preemie/size zero nipple to start but there will, of course, be a lot of babies who don’t take to it.  Lily liked it just fine and actually didn’t mind switching between a faster flow with me and slower flow with the bottle.   But every baby is different and the choice that is working best for a lot of babies, including my Mav, is the Lansinoh mOmma.  The nipple is a great shape and easy for them to get a nice wide latch on.  Like I said above, nipples that look the most like mom’s breast (like Como Tomo) does not necessarily mean that the baby will like it better. Your baby will never be tricked into thinking a bottle is your breast. Breasts are very malleable and silicone is not, so bottles that look like breasts may be hard for your baby to get latched onto.  Keep in mind, your nipple actually swells significantly in your baby’s mouth and a bottle nipple would never be capable of that.  A helpful hint for the Lansinoh mOmma: even the slowest flow nipple is still quite fast, so you can purchase these nipples for your newborn until they’re old enough to handle the slowest flow Lansinoh nipples!  You may have to experiment A LOT with bottles.  What bottle your baby likes may depend on whether you have flat nipples, fast/slow flow, a baby with a tongue or lip tie, a preemie, or a baby with a misshapen palette.  Do your research, buy a few different types and test them out!
  4.  Learn about Paced Bottle Feeding.  This is a technique that should be used with all breastfed babies to closely imitate mom’s milk flow.  You want to sit your baby upright, put the nipple under their top lip, let them suck with the bottle tilted down, then lift the bottle up until the nipple is full of milk and let them get 4-6 gulps in and bend the bottle down to let them catch their breath.  Suck, suck, swallow is a common pattern during letdown and the most active part of the feed but in the early days, they may have to suck 4 or 5 times before they get enough to swallow.  It will really depend on your flow.
  5.  Keep bottle-feeding often Once you’ve introduced a bottle, you’ll want to continue to give it to baby at least 3 to 4 times a week or every other day at DIFFERENT TIMES of the day for as long as you want baby to take a bottle.  Babies change constantly, so you want to keep the bottle fresh in their minds!

What to try if your baby won’t take a bottle:

  1. Have someone else give them the bottle and GET OUTTA THERE.  There is a very strange phenomenon where some babies will not eat if mom anywhere near him/her.  Some people find success if someone else gives baby the bottle if they’re out of the home!  
    You can also try this with dad and see if a family member or friend have success.
  2. Try different bottles AND nipple flows.  You can read more about bottle shape and nipple flow above but keep in mind nipple preference is real but nipple “confusion” is not.  The Lansinoh mOmma is the ONLY bottle my son will take but my daughter was able to latch on to just about anything!
  3. Nurse for a little while, then try quickly popping the bottle in his/her mouth. It’s best to have the bottle right near their mouth ready to go when trying this technique, so they don’t get frustrated with the milk dissappears!
  4. Give the bottle first thing in the morning or immediately after he/she wakes up from a nap. Their semi-sleepy and hungry state can be really helpful!  
  5. Identify WHY your babe doesn’t want the bottle. Do they need a distraction?  Try bringing them outside or in front of a bright colorful toy or sibling and facing them outward when they feed.  Need to be free of distractions? Try the feed upon waking tip or bring them in a dark, quiet room when it’s time to eat. Maverick likes to have minimal distractions and he actually likes to look right at me while he bottle feeds!
  6. Try a paci or a finger.  Introducing a paci or a very clean, manicured finger (nail down) for baby to suck on can be really helpful.  Baby’s have the suck reflex for the first 3 to 4 months so you can teach them to latch onto something other than your breast and it can be a gateway to the bottle.  The first time Mav took the mOmma bottle, it was after I had let him suck on a paci for a little bit!
  7. Take the nipple off of the bottle, dip it in breastmilk or let it soak overnight in breastmilk before you give it to them.  Let them gnaw or suck on it WITHOUT having it attached to the bottle so they can get used to it.  Then start with only ½ oz in the bottle an work your way up.
  8. Swaddle your baby or keep them in a soft wrap or carrier.  When Mav was really little and would have trouble taking a bottle from Andy, we found that swaddling helped A LOT.
  9. GO SLOW and be as patient as possible.  Take a couple of deep breaths and give it time.  It may take a few tries or a few different bottles/techniques to get it
  10. Introduce the bottle when baby is not full but not starving.  If they’re overly hungry they will get frustrated easily and if they’re not hungry enough, they won’t want to eat to begin with!
  11.  Try bottle feeding once or twice a day.  If they cry or get angry, try one more time that session after they calm down.  If they don’t want it then, try again later.
  12. Try a Sippy Cup if your baby is 4 months or older you may be able to get them to start drinking from a cup. You can also use syringes or small medicine cups and spoons when they’re young!
  13. Give a bottle 3 to 4 attempts before switching to another one
  14. If all else fails, it’s time to visit an IBCLC and/or Speech-Language Pathologist!  Let the experts help you.  I would actually suggest doing this from the very beginning so you can avoid a lot of frustration!

Mommy, I am here for you. I truly know how hard this is and how scary it can be to feel like you’re trapped.  This will not last forever even though it feels that way.  I hope one of these tips works for you and if it doesn’t, I hope suggestions from a lactation consultant or another professional will. If all else fails, do the best that you can and remember to listen to your mommy instinct!  I would love to hear if any of these tips above worked for you or if you found something else that did! 

For other breastfeeding and pumping tips and my favorite product be sure to read this post!

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