Baby Won’t Take Bottle: Why This Happens And The Best Solutions

baby refusing bottle

Breastfeeding is an enriching experience that benefits both the baby and the mother. It creates an incredible bond between them, and nothing can compare.

However, there comes a time when you’ll need to move on from breastfeeding. Whether it’s to return to work, needing to leave the baby with someone else for another reason, can’t breastfeed, or decides not to keep breastfeeding the baby, the alternative is bottle feeding.

It sounds simple enough and straightforward; just place some breast milk or formula into a bottle and bottle feed the baby. But sometimes, it is not that simple and an exclusively breastfed baby refusing a bottle is very common.

So, baby won’t take bottle. Why does this happen? Does that mean you’ll need to keep breastfeeding until they don’t need milk anymore and eat solid foods? Can something be done about it?

To answer all of these questions, let’s understand the probable causes and how to approach switching from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding more effectively.

Introducing a bottle to a baby

Nowadays, there’s a strong movement that advocates the benefits of breastfeeding and how much better it is from bottle feeding. And breast milk is indeed superior to formula in many ways, and it also has many other benefits that bottle feeding does not have.

But that doesn’t mean that bottle-feeding is bad and that a breastfed baby is better than a formula-fed baby. There are many reasons why a mother will need or prefer to bottle feed their little ones, and it’s not always a simple decision to make and should be respected.

Because of this breastfeeding movement, many mothers avoid introducing a bottle to their babies until they have no other alternatives, and when that happens, the baby may resist. Babies prefer the comfort of their mother’s breasts, smell, and warmth, so it’s understandable if a baby refuses the bottle in this scenario.

Therefore to avoid this situation, specialists encourage introducing the bottle as soon as possible. Breastfeeding advocates suggest that you don’t do this before the baby is about 4 weeks old unless it’s absolutely necessary to prevent confusion and the baby rejecting the breast instead.

Babies are born with a sucking reflex that goes away when they’re 2-3 months old. So during that window of time, you should start offering milk in a bottle to your baby, so the feel of the bottle teat is not as foreign to them later on.

If you want to continue breastfeeding, the idea is that you offer them the occasional bottles of expressed breast milk. This will get them accustomed to the feel of the bottle nipple, and they won’t reject them later on. Another alternative is to give them a pacifier when they fall asleep or are distressed to soothe them.

Possible reasons why baby won’t take bottle

1. Mechanics of Sucking

You may experience bottle refusal from breastfed babies because they might not understand how to feed on a bottle. The reason can be that the mechanics of sucking are different. Although there’s not much evidence behind this theory, a study comparing the mechanics of sucking on a mother’s breast and a bottle found important differences.

According to this study, breastfed babies have different suckling movements than bottle-fed ones. And in cases where babies are mixed-fed, the baby can switch from one type of suckling movement to the other.

So maybe the reason for your baby to refuse bottles is that they’re not latching correctly and sucking enough milk, which causes frustration and makes them seek what’s comfortable and works for them.

baby refusing bottle

2. Milk flow from bottle teat

there are different styles of bottle teats, and they allow the suggested flow for a baby according to their age and how much milk they can take at once. However, this is a very general presumption, and it may differ from one child to another. If the mother has a strong letdown while breastfeeding, the child is used to drinking more milk faster than maybe another child in the same age range.

So imagine you choose a slow flow teat because your baby is 1-2 months old, and they’re not getting milk fast enough. They will become antsy and refuse bottle feeding. But the same can happen if the opposite occurs. If your milk supply is lower and your breastfeeding baby is used to eating slower, when you introduce a bottle that feeds them more milk than he can swallow, you will notice that the baby will drip from the side of the baby’s mouth or they will cough it out. If your baby is refusing a bottle, try changing the teat to see if that’s the issue. 

There are also a few different brands of bottles that are designed to mimic the look and feel of the mother’s breasts. This might be a little more expensive, and it doesn’t have to be your first choice, but it’s worth looking into the reviews and suggestions about baby bottles. Try them out to see which one the baby prefers.

3. Reflux and gas

Although this may happen to a breastfed baby, reflux is more common in a baby bottle feeding. This condition can be painful and uncomfortable for everyone, and it’s a valid reason for a normally breastfed baby to refuse a bottle.

A baby’s digestive tract may be immature, especially in premature babies, and if they ingest milk too fast, it creates a wave, of sorts, inside their stomachs that sends milk mixed with the stomach’s acids back up. This burns the esophagus and causes pain and discomfort.

Also, expressed milk inside a bottle is not airtight, and even if you use bottles designed to prevent gas and colic, there’s still the chance that some air may pass to the baby, and they get gassy.

The good news is that this is just a phase, and if reflux becomes a problem, your pediatrician can prescribe your baby some medication or instruct you on how to bottle feed them without causing reflux.

Baby choking on milk

If your baby is choking on milk while bottle feeding, it’s because the flow is too strong, and they’re getting more milk than they can swallow at once.

This can also happen if you have a strong letdown as a breastfeeding parent. If you’re breastfeeding, you can try expressing some of the milk before allowing the baby to feed.

And if this happens while bottle feeding, you need to change the bottle or the nipple to one that has a slower flow to accommodate the baby’s needs and abilities.

How can you help your baby to take a bottle?

There are a few things you could try to help your baby accept the bottle.

1. Find the right time

there’s a common misconception that when a baby is very hungry, they’ll do whatever to eat and that if your baby is refusing a bottle, you should wait until they’re very, very hungry, so there will be no resistance. This is not true with very young babies, and it does the opposite. When the baby is starving, they will have no patience to take a bottle, and, even though feeding from the bottle is technically easier, they will seek comfort from breastfeeding.

So you’ll need to find that magic time when the baby is hungry but not starving to try bottle feeding them. A suggestion may be to offer the bottle right after they wake up or as the baby sleeps (they still suckle while sleeping). A sleepy baby may be more willing to try.

2. The environment is key

Younger babies may need a relaxed environment to experience any change. So if a baby has been exclusively breastfed and you’re trying to switch things around, but there’s a lot of noise and things going on all around them, chances are they will get overwhelmed.

Remember that babies don’t understand or process emotions the way an older child does, so something straightforward as an older sibling playing loudly can trigger distress in a baby.

Therefore, when introducing a bottle to a baby, try doing it in a relaxed environment, with low lights, play soft music or white noise, hum a song to them and sit on a rocking chair. The idea is to create a soothing environment that makes the child more receptive and relaxes the parent (babies feed on the parent’s emotions, so if you’re stressed, the baby will feel it and will be fussier).

baby refusing bottle

3. Try different positions

Maybe your baby is refusing to be bottle-fed because they’re uncomfortable doing it in the breastfeeding position. Try a different position to see if this makes a difference and find which one your baby likes. For example, you can place your baby with its back against your stomach, sit on a bed with your knees bent, and place the baby on your thighs in an upright position.

4. Allow others to feed the baby

Most babies are able to smell their mothers, and if the rather be breastfed and the mom is trying to bottle feed, they may fight against it. However, if the one offering the bottle is another family member, they may be more receptive.

So instead of making mom offer the bottle, let dad or another person help out. One of the main reasons parents choose to bottle feed is so the mother can have some freedom and allow the child to bond with other family members.

Beware, if you’re trying this approach, the best way is to be totally out of sight of the baby because if they see, hear or smell you, they will resist. So take this time for a greatly appreciated brake. Just be close enough so if the mission fails, you can come to the rescue right away.

5. Try other tools

La Leche League suggests that if you can’t do breastfeeding directly, you try cup feeding using an open cup, regular cup, or a shot glass instead of bottle feeding. You’ll need to sit the baby upright on your lap and support the neck and shoulders with an arm or hand. Then, place the cup’s rim on the lower lip and tilt the cup until the expressed breastmilk approaches the lip and allow your baby to explore and find the milk by themselves at their own pace until they start sipping it. A sippy cup may work, but La Leche League does not recommend this.

Be careful you don’t pour the milk into the baby’s mouth. Other options include using a syringe, a dropper, or a spoon to feed the baby, especially in the case of smaller babies like newborns or preemies.

Additional tips that help with bottle refusal

If you’ve tried all of the above and still find your baby taking a bottle as an impossible task, here are some other ideas.

Before offering the bottle, dab the nipple in expressed breastmilk and touch it with the baby’s lips, don’t push the bottle. Wait until the baby has an open mouth, and then gently insert the nipple into the mouth.

You can also try finger feeding. Dab your clean finger in expressed milk and allow your baby to suck on it. You can try switching between letting them suck on your finger and pulling it out. That way, your baby will try to keep it by sucking harder. This will kick the sucking reflex and strengthen the seal and suction they should have on a bottle.

Contact a healthcare provider for guidance and ideas if you still have doubts and are getting frustrated. They may notice whether the baby has an underlying condition preventing them from achieving this and treating it.

Just remember to be patient while the baby learns this new skill. Just because your baby won’t take the bottle today doesn’t mean you’ll need to wait until they eat solid food or that it’ll never happen. With time, patience and perseverance, you’ll soon see the baby starts cooperating, and you will be able to get back to your everyday life.

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