First published 1/13/2019; updated 5/5/2023
This post is part of a 3 part series on bottle-feeding breastfed babies. I highly suggest you read part 1 on choosing a bottle for your breastfed baby and part 2 on how to give a breastfed baby a bottle before tackling part 3!
Ah, bottle refusal. Or as it’s also known- “my baby won’t take a bottle and I am losing my ever-loving mind.”
You’d think that once you got over the hurdle of those early fiddly tender confusing frustrating breastfeeding days, a bottle would be a piece of cake… but if you’re reading this blog post there’s a good chance your baby refuses to take a bottle.
Try not to panic- hopefully you’ve got at least a week or two until whatever event or life change is coming up that the bottles are required for. This often FEELS like an emergency, but you have time!
If someone tells you to just send baby to the sitter with a bottle and “if he/she is hungry enough, he/she will figure it out” or “daycare workers are really good at bottles so don’t bother trying at home first”, give that person your sternest angry eyes and walk away from them.
(Now, if your baby really does need to eat from something other than you RIGHT NOW and won’t take a bottle, I suggest you put some pumped milk in a medicine cup or shot glass as shown in this video. It can be a bit messy, but baby will be fed and give you a back-up plan until you get this whole bottle SNAFU figured out. Sometimes a sippy cup with a flexible straw works, too.)
The goal here is to make slow and steady progress while keeping bottle feeding HAPPY and CALM. Screaming, crying babies aren’t going to eat no matter how many brands of bottles you try.
I’m here to help!
We'll start with a dry, clean, empty bottle.
Pictured above are the Lansinoh Breastmilk Feeding Bottle, the Dr Browns Original/Natural Flow bottle, and the Evenflo Balance + Standard Neck bottle.
1 Let your baby play with/suck/chew on the bottle nipple with NO food in it first. That’s right, just the nipple and the bottle collar. If your baby is old enough to put things in their mouth, hand them the nipple and let them explore it. If baby isn’t quite that old then try gently introducing the nipple to their mouth like a pacifier. We want this to be non-threatening and low pressure.
2 Once your baby is comfortable with the nipple being in their mouth you’ll want to try dipping the nipple in expressed milk and letting them suck on it; again, this is WITHOUT it being full of milk. We’re just making friends with the nipple, not eating.
3 If your baby won’t suck on the nipple no matter what you do, get them to play tug-of-war while sucking your clean finger or a pacifier (if they’ll take one). They will need to cup your finger with their tongue, extend it over their gums, and keep it there while they suck. When they’re sucking you’ll tug your finger/pacifier a bit to encourage them to suck it back in.
4 If you can’t get your baby to suck on a bottle nipple, pacifier, OR your finger and you’ve tried this over and over for at least 3 days, you need one-on-one help with a skilled IBCLC to figure out what’s going on. There’s always a reason babies aren’t sucking, and the reason is never “because he wants to make my life harder.”
5 Once you’ve got baby used to sucking on the bottle nipple, hand them an empty bottle to play with/get used to. Again, keep it low pressure and fun.
Headed back to work?
You're ready to move on to a bottle with something IN it!
Once they’re convinced that the bottle isn’t going to do them grave bodily harm you can fill it with about one ounce of pumped milk. Warm? Cold? Doesn’t really matter. Try one, try both. Most babies don’t have any problem drinking cold breastmilk straight from the fridge.
You’ll want to start with baby sitting up or semi reclined- make sure baby’s arms and legs are supported and they’re not flailing or tipsy.
You’ll want to gently lay the bottle nipple vertically against baby’s lips so they open their mouth. You then gently move the bottle nipple into their mouth, angling UP towards the roof of their mouth, allowing them to suck it in.
Once you get your baby to allow the bottle nipple into their mouth, you may need to trick them into sucking on it and drinking. There are lots of ways of doing this.
I’m going to give you a boatload of ideas- but it’s very important that you DO NOT TRY THEM ALL AT ONCE. Try a few of these in one session if your baby is calm and happy. If your baby gets upset, STOP!
If you DO get baby to suck and swallow, even once or twice, be super sweet and happy about it in a calming way. They have to learn that this is okay and not threatening and that sometimes even when we’re loudly celebrating, it confuses them.
Keep it happy and soothing! And if they only do one or two sucks and swallows and then stop, don’t force it. Count it as a win and try again later.
Because here’s the thing I’ve found in every single bottle refusal (and also, breast refusal) consult I’ve done- if baby isn’t taking the bottle (or breast) THERE IS A REASON. Babies don’t refuse bottles just to be jerks and show us who’s boss.
You’ve got a couple of choices here!
- You can book a virtual visit with me, and we can work together via video chat, or
- Find a local IBCLC who specializes in bottle refusals below (currently this list is USA only)
For more info about this list or to be added, please read this note.
Trine Bradshaw, Gilbert
Jennie Bever, Tempe
Cara Peterson Riek, Scottsdale/Phoenix
Tanya Smith, Little Rock
Carly Marks, San Diego
Evonne Smith, Los Angeles
Ellen Schwerin, San Francisco
Heather Shabestari, San Diego
Chrisie Rosenthal, Los Angeles
Rachelle Markham, San Diego
Molly Brannigan, San Francisco Bay
Michelle Kunschke, Sacramento
Jewel Mohr, Sacramento
Debra Bender, Silicon Valley
Katie Howser, San Francisco
Lori Atkins, Central & Eastern CT
Beth Brownstein, Stratford bethbrownstein.com
Patrice Jones, Southington
Andrea Blanco, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties
Chrissy Bodin, Jacksonville
Brooke Simmons, Orlando area
Kendal Vaughn, Pensacola
Mary Unangst, Tampa
Katherine Morrisson, Atlanta
Helen Pastures, Savannah
Melissa Donovan, North Atlanta
Dee Kassing, Southern Illinois
Lisa Milano Zimmerman, Chicago
Patricia Berg-Drazin, Chicagoland
Bonnie Holt Logsdon, Louisville
Elizabeth Stapleton, Lexington
Nancy Brown, Monroe
Katy Linda, central MD
Melanie Tarr, Eastern Shore
Ann Faust, Howard County
Rachel O’Brien (that’s me!)
Office visits in Wayland, MA: see my services here
Shelly Taft, Central MA
Michelle Stolow, Maynard
Heather Bingham, Arlington
Kira Kim, Boston’s North Shore
Leah Segura, Midland
Andrea Zook, Minneapolis/St Paul Metro
Kay Miller, Kansas City Metro
Lisa Weinshenker, Las Vegas
Elizabeth Devaney, Morristown
Kara Thornton, South Jersey and Philadelphia
Michelle Farfel, Spring Lake
Avery Giordano, Collingswood
Sandra Jean Taylor, Albuquerque
Jen Deshaies, Syracuse
Leigh Anne O’Connor, NYC
Barbara Cohen, NYC
Sarah Lester, Fayetteville
Rebecca Costello, Chapel Hill
Moira Griffin, Cary
Jessica Altemara, Triangle area
Stacy Noestine, Columbus
James Steele Diver, Mason
Melissa Cole, Portland
Seal Fichadia, Portland
Meredith Wentzel, Greenville
Dawnalea Robinson, Nashville
Leah Jolly, Houston
Suzanne Juel, Houston
Susan Johnson, SLC
Jenna Forester & Gina Boling, Northern VA & DC
Susan Howard, Arlington
Stacy Kucharczk, Hampton Roads
Joy McTavish, Seattle
Mary Francell, Bellingham
Please note: This list contains names, locations and websites of IBCLCs who say they specialize in bottle refusal consults. Names are in no particular order (except for in Massachusetts where I put myself first because it’s my blog post and I can do what I want) and are provided merely as a courtesy for my readers.
If you are an IBCLC in the USA and would like to be added to this list, please make sure you are:
- experienced with bottle refusal consults
- confident about your skill and ability in this area
- in private practice with a standalone website (not a Facebook page)
If these all apply to you, please contact me with your name, town/area and state, and your website. I will add names to this list at my leisure, and I have final say on who is on this list.
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Does it have to be expressed milk or can I try with formula?
My baby boy is 5 months old and has (almost)always refused a bottle. My hubby and I are supposed to go on our annual camping trip (alone) in 2 weeks!
he will take a bottle on occasion from someone else but usually refuses. I’m feeling so lost and hopeless. What can I do?
You can book a visit with any of the IBCLCs listed above who specialize in bottle refusal- including me- and we can help!
Thank you for this article. Do you recommend doing these exercises right before feeding or in between feedings. Also I know my little gets my milk really fast. Should I use a faster nipple?
You do them between feeds, and yes, if you have fast milk flow then a very slow flow nipple may not work for your baby!
My baby takes bottle with the babysitter but refuses the bottle with me. My milk supply depleted recently and baby have not been drinking milk since the last night feed from the babysitter until morning. Seems like baby only want my breast for comfort sucking at night. My babysitter is stopping soon. I need to be able to bottle feed my baby myself. Help!
I’m so happy I found this article, thank you. Your tone and approach is so appreciated because you are spot on – it feels like an emergency to us as parents even when we still have time to figure it out! We’ll definitely be giving these ideas a try. Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you for the 3 articles very good reading, I have an 8 week old and we introduced a bottle once a day at 3 weeks, we seem to now have an 8 week old who doesn’t want a bottle particularly at bedtime which is when I’m trying to introduce it. It’s been a bit like torture trying to give it to her so I tried your suggested techniques last night and bingo she took her bottle after a good 30 minutes of offering my finger/empty teat and then bottle. She took a bottle beautifully this morning at 10am which is the feed I first introduced but tonight she’s not so keen. She’s taken about 1.5oz and stopped. Previously I’ve wondered if she has wind/just isn’t hungry do the bottle- so many things to take into account. Do you suggest I just keep repeating your process? She can take a bottle we know she can she just seems to choose when she wants to! Any advice greatly appreciated!
Great articles, I really like the tone of them, the humour is greatly appreciated on a topic that people can be a bit sanctimonious about. Thanks for all the advice. We will be trying this.
This was the BEST advice I received! We have been working with my 3 month old for 2 weeks trying to get him ready for daycare and this worked in literally a day! Thank you so much!
Yay, I’m so glad it helped!
So what are other reasons baby will not take a bottle even when you have tried all of this?
Thank you so much for this information. My baby is 6 months and will not take a bottle. I had literally tried EVERYTHING that was suggested and even tried the bottles you listed. I’m going to try to reintroduce the bottle with the new things you suggested. Let’s hope it works! 🙂
Any luck? My baby is 6 months old as well and I’m starting to panic since I will be going away for a night and my mother in law will not be able to feed him.