Sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t get off to a good start and before you know it your baby is taking bottles and won’t latch to the breast at all. Or perhaps a medical issue prevented you feeding your baby at the breast initially. Or sometimes a baby suddenly stops taking the breast unexpectedly. Getting a baby back to breastfeeding after a period of bottle feeding can take some patience and perseverance, but it is definitely possible. If your breast milk supply has dropped then in addition to getting baby from bottle to breast you may have to build your milk supply or relactate.
Tips to get started
- Build your breast milk supply by regular pumping or hand expression as needed or see our Tips for Relactation
- Keep your baby well fed while he practices or while he refuses to latch so he doesn’t learn to associate hunger and frustration with the breast
- Be patient, encourage your baby to latch without pressure, relax your shoulders and try not to look tense, smile!
How to get baby back to breast
- Skin-to-skin time—hold your baby next to the breast as a warm happy safe place to hang out without pressure to latch. The fewer clothes between you the better. Take off any scratch mittens so your baby can use his hands and tune into his natural instincts. Relax in the bath together in low lighting with your baby between your breasts as if he had just been born, don’t worry if he latches or not.
- Avoid using a bottle for feeds—alternatives such as cup feeding, or using a supplemental nursing line on a finger and later at the breast encourage breastfeeding by helping to break a baby’s association with bottles as their exclusive food source. If you can’t drop bottles yet, try to make bottle feeding more like a breastfeed by following these tips to bottle feed a breastfed baby. Some mothers hide the bottle in a cloth and keep baby next to a naked breast during their feed.
- Avoid using a dummy as it encourages a different suck to the one required for a good latch on the breast. Try using skin-to-skin and suckling at the breast as the comforter instead of artificial nipples. Using a sling around the house can give your baby easy access to the breast.
- A sleepy baby may latch. When your baby is in a light sleep or not frantically hungry bring him skin-to-skin next to a full breast, he may latch. It can help if you can initiate the let down before he goes on to the breast so that there is an instant reward of milk. Or if he latches, you could try some gentle breast compressions to increase milk flow. This involves applying gentle pressure to your breast, being careful to keep your fingers far enough from your nipple so that you don’t disturb your baby’s latch. See What is Breast Compression? for further information.
- Switching from bottle to breast half way through a feed has worked for some mothers.
- Breastfeeding positions. Remind yourself of the best ways to hold your baby to help them latch. Laid back positions can help with self latching. Our articles Breastfeeding Positions for Newborns and Breastfeeding Videos may be useful. If you’re not sure, contact your breastfeeding helper or IBCLC Lactation Consultant, it will really help to have an experienced cheer leader at your side.
Full breast or empty breast?
Try to strike a balance between offering a soft breast which will be easier for a latch, and a breast that is full enough to give an instant reward of plentiful milk. Shaping your breast ie compressing it/flattening it slightly to fit your baby’s mouth can help your baby latch (i.e. the same way you might flatten a big sandwich full of lettuce before you take a bite).
Because a nipple shield will feel and taste closer to a bottle teat this can be a helpful bottle-to-breast transitioning tool. Try it when your baby is sleepy or in light sleep and with a breast full of milk. Expressing a little milk into the end of the shield will give him an instant reward if he latches. Some breast compressions can help keep his interest if he does latch.
A supplemental feeding tube can be used as a finger-feeding exercise—the tube runs along a finger and provides milk when baby sucks. Finger feeding can be a useful way for a baby who will not latch to practice sucking because finger-feeding is closer to breastfeeding than bottle feeding. After a little finger-feeding to calm your baby and take the edge off his appetite, try moving him to the breast, ensure your breast is soft and not over full to help him grasp the breast tissue to form a teat shape.
Use play and humour
For a slightly older baby using new positions in a playful way may help turn breastfeeding into more of a casual fun thing, rather than an activity that creates tension and anxiety. Trying different positions and places for latching on—in the bath, the garden, kitchen, while walking about, in a dark room, even dangling a breast over him when he is on the floor (while you both giggle)—may all help make it more of a fun thing to do.
Once your baby latches…
The first latch will be very exciting, you may find you tense up or hold your breath. Try to relax and act like this is natural and nothing special! You could sway slightly or rock your baby gently at this point. Some mothers have tried singing or chatting to their baby while their little one latches. The next step is providing an instant reward for any suckling, either via a full breast and an already initiated let-down or by breast compressions or with a supplemental nursing system (see below). As soon as your baby is taking good volumes at the breast try to phase out using the bottle for any top ups so your baby can learn to breastfeed without nipple confusion.
My baby has latched but breastfeeding hurts…
Working with an IBCLC lactation consultant when you are trying to get your baby back to the breast can be a great support. There may be good reasons why breastfeeding didn’t work out the first time and it can help a great deal to talk these through. Maybe it was because breastfeeding hurt because your baby was in a shallow latch, or you didn’t think you had enough milk, or you had flat or inverted nipples. Knowing answers to common problems can help prepare you for any blips in your bottle-to-breast journey. Your lactation consultant will be able to make suggestions to improve latch, positioning and tongue function.
Supplemental nursing system
If your milk supply is very low, supplementing at the breast with a homemade or commercial supplemental nursing system can help transition baby back to breast once they begin to latch. If your baby is latched correctly the thin feeding tube of the supplementer runs alongside the nipple delivering plenty of breast milk or formula. This helps give your baby a positive association with the breast as a food source and will also stimulate your own supply simply by baby being latched on. It can be fiddly and take some practice, and bear in mind an older baby may be aware of the tube at first.
Just as many breastfed babies can be persuaded to take a bottle, it is possible to get a baby to take the breast after a period of bottle feeding. It can take some patience and perseverance but there are several tips and tricks to try even if your baby is several weeks or months old.