Imagine this: You’re finally ready to leave baby with another caregiver for a few hours, but your breastfed baby won’t take a bottle.
This sweat-inducing scenario is—unfortunately—all too common, because babies are creatures of habit that rely on their familiar daily routines.
So how can you prevent this from happening to you?
If you want—or need—your baby to take a bottle, it’s so important to get the timing right. Of course, you don’t want nipple confusion. But you also don’t want baby to get so comfortable with the breast that they refuse the bottle altogether.
Lactation consultants say it’s best to introduce a bottle to your breastfed baby at about 4-5 weeks old.
This is the sweet spot, because your milk supply is established and baby is a good nurser, but it is early enough that baby gets used to taking a bottle occasionally.
It’s not one and done either…
According to lactation consultants, once baby is comfortable with the bottle, it’s best to incorporate bottle feeding into your regular routine at least once per week.
What to Do When Baby Won’t Take a Bottle
If you’ve already missed this window, don’t panic! Though it can be stress-inducing when you realize your breastfed baby won’t take a bottle and you’re scheduled to return to work soon, there are some clever strategies to get any baby to take the plunge. Here are some tried-and-true methods:
If baby is used to having skin-to-skin contact while feeding (she likely does if she’s breastfed!), that might be enough to get her to take a bottle. Have the person offering the bottle do some skin-to skin care with baby to mimic that soothing feeling of breastfeeding.
Leave the room (or not!)
Often, baby won’t take a bottle because she can see, hear, or even smell mom. Many families have success with bottles only when mom is out of the room (or the house entirely).
However, the opposite can be true, too. I kept having dad, babysitter, grandma, etc. try to bottle feed my nursling, but she just wouldn’t take it. Finally, I tried, and she took it from me—go figure!
Try a different bottle or nipple
Sometimes baby simply doesn’t like the shape, color, or feel of the bottle/nipple. Of all the moms I’ve talked to, this is the biggest culprit and will make a world of difference if you find the “right” bottle. But how do you find the right bottle for your baby? Start by taking a look at bottles that are best for breastfed babies. Then, buy one or two and try them out. Once you know which bottle or nipple your baby prefers, you can stock up.
Make sure baby is sleepy
If baby is just waking up or just about to fall asleep, she may take the bottle more easily, since she’s not fully aware. If baby usually eats after a nap, try offering the bottle as she wakes. Or, if she typically nurses to sleep, try giving the bottle as she’s drifting off.
Find the perfect window of hunger
If baby is very hungry, she may not take the bottle just because she’s upset (and who likes changing routines when they’re already hangry?). But if baby isn’t hungry at all, she probably won’t want to take the bottle either.
Try to find the perfect balance—a time when she’s still a bit hungry, but not overly so. One way to do this is by feeding on one breast and then offering a bottle for the rest of the feeding. (Just don’t forget to pump the other breast!)
If there is a lot of activity and noise in the house, baby may be too distracted to take a bottle (this can be true for breastfeeding as well). Have whoever is feeding baby find a quiet place and calm baby down before trying to offer the bottle.
Wait for a good mood
Likewise, if baby is upset (overtired, over-hungry, missing mama, etc), it’s not a great time to get baby to take a bottle. Try to introduce the bottle at times when baby is somewhat content and settled. If you’re in an emergency situation where you need to get baby fed immediately, consider finger feeding or using a spoon, then try the bottle once baby is settled down.
Change the temperature of the milk
Try bringing milk to another temperature. Most babies prefer very warm milk, since that’s the temperature that breastmilk is, but if baby is used to something different, she may prefer that. Experiment with temperatures that are slightly warmer and slightly cooler to see what works best for your baby.
Warm the nipple and dip it in breast milk
Breastfed babies are familiar with mom’s nipples, which are warm and often already taste like breastmilk (even before the letdown). Warming the nipple in a cup of warm water and then dipping it in breastmilk can help mimic this.
Place baby facing out
Some babies will take a bottle if they face away from the person giving the bottle. For babies who don’t sit up on their own yet, the best way to do this is to place baby on your lap and use your (non-dominant) arm to steady her. Then you can use your other hand to hold the bottle.
Place baby facing inwards
On the contrary, some babies do better when facing toward the person who is feeding them. Babies who can sit up on their own can sit on your lap looking at your face. Babies who can’t sit up yet can be assisted with a nursing pillow or something similar.
This is a great position for offering smiles and words of affirmation to baby. Many babies find this reassuring and are more likely to try the bottle.
Try a completely different position
Additionally, feeding baby in a different position from the one she nurses in can help, too. This may take some trial and error, but you may find that you can’t give baby a bottle when holding her close to the chest (even for Dad or Grandma!). Baby may need a whole new feeding position for taking a bottle.
Try a change of scenery
It’s possible that baby associates her surroundings with breastfeeding, so trying a different location may solve the problem. Go into a different room than you normally breastfeed in or even a different home/place altogether. Going outside can work, too.
Don’t worry: You won’t have to go outside every time baby needs a bottle. Once she’s used to taking a bottle, it won’t be difficult for her to take one in your normal feeding space.
Try a different formula
If you’re using formula, it’s a good idea to try a different brand (or try homemade) to see if that helps. Sometimes babies prefer one kind of formula over another. It’s also possible that baby has an allergy or sensitivity to something in the formula (often dairy), so trying a dairy-free formula may help.
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Most of All… Don’t Give Up!
So your baby still won’t take a bottle? The good news is most babies get the hang of bottle feeding eventually.
Baby looks to you for cues about what is okay and safe and what is not. If you keep offering the bottle, she will eventually get that it’s ok. It may take you some time and experimentation, but you’ll get there!