When Your Baby Won't Accept a Bottle

I'm heading back to work in two weeks and I'm in a panic. My three-month-old, totally breastfed baby will have nothing at all to do with a bottle. We have tried everything. Please help!


Kathy Kuhn

Kathy Kuhn is a registered nurse who has been working with breastfeeding families since 1981. She has been an International Board Certified... Read more

I’m so sorry you are having this difficulty, I’m sure you must feel pressured to get the baby to take a bottle in a hurry. Most of the ideas I have to offer are from other working, breastfeeding moms who have experienced the same problem and have found solutions by trial and error. I would highly recommend also looking for help on the working and pumping message board here at ParentsPlace.com for some mother-to-mother support.

When introducing a bottle to a breastfed baby, most mothers find it is effective to offer the bottle when the baby is not very hungry. I feel this may be the most important point, and probably the most often overlooked, since many people understandably reason that letting the baby get very hungry will encourage him to readily take the bottle.

I find babies are more receptive to learning new skills when they are not very hungry. Imagine you are very, very hungry. You are offered a plate of food with a set of chopsticks. You have grown up in a culture that uses forks and have never even seen chopsticks before, so you have no idea how to use them. I imagine that could be pretty frustrating and you might be pretty upset with the person feeding you if they insisted you use only chopsticks. You might even grow to hate the chopsticks and feel anxious or angry the next time they are offered to you. But if you are given the chopsticks when you are not ravenously hungry, by a patient teacher who allows you to experiment with them and have fun with them, most likely you will be more receptive and learn how to use them well enough to meet your nutritional needs when only chopsticks are available.

Always use a low-key, gentle approach, taking little steps at first. The person offering the bottle should tickle the baby's lips with the bottle nipple vertically, from nose to chin, with pauses between each stroke, to encourage the baby to open wide. Once the baby opens, allow the baby to accept the bottle into his mouth. Allow him to gum it or lick it first before lifting it to allow the milk to flow. Resist the temptation to poke the bottle into the baby's mouth before he is ready since that may foster resistance.

You may not be able to get the baby to take an entire feeding from the bottle at first so start with small amounts, one-half to one ounce. Use freshly expressed breastmilk if at all possible, to make the bottle-feeding experience as close to breastfeeding as you can by duplicating the taste and temperature of the milk. Once the baby accepts fresh breastmilk in the bottle you can switch to refrigerated or frozen breastmilk or formula if that is your goal.

Some babies prefer to have someone else give the bottle, because if mom is there, they expect to breastfeed. You may even need to go to another part of the house or leave the house, though you should stay close enough to come back quickly if you are needed. Other babies prefer to have mom give the bottle during the learning stage, since they feel most comfortable with mom. Usually these babies eventually learn to take the bottle from others too. Some babies like to have the familiar smell of mom when getting a bottle. You can give the bottle-feeding person a shirt that you have worn to put on their shoulder, or you may want to try warming the bottle nipple by tucking it in your bra so it smells and tastes more like mom. Again the baby can usually progress to taking the bottle nipple without mom pre-warming it. Some babies will accept a bottle nipple warmed under hot water.

Also try different nipple types, different feeding positions and different times of the day, when the baby might be more receptive. Some will take the bottle only when being rocked, walked or swayed. Some babies will learn how to bottle-feed best when fully awake, while others can be encouraged to take the bottle during sleep.

If your baby usually takes both breasts, try breastfeeding at one breast until the baby is finished with that breast and then have someone else offer the bottle to finish the feeding. You could also try to hold the bottle next to your baby's mouth while breastfeed to make the bottle more familiar and associated with feeding time. If your baby accepts having the bottle near the breast during breastfeeding you may have success offering the bottle in a breastfeeding position near the end of the feeding.

Some babies, especially those after about three months, will accept a cup with lid and sipping spout instead of a bottle to meet their nutritional needs while away from mom. . Try different types of lids to see what works best. Be careful to allow the baby to sip at his own pace.

If your baby takes the bottle using any of these learning techniques, it doesn’t mean you will need to do it exactly the same way each time. Usually, you can work in steps from this starting point to accomplish your bottle-feeding needs.

Some babies will alter their feeding routine, taking only minimal amounts from the bottle while mom is at work during the day and making up for it by frequent night breastfeedings. Many moms find it is more restful to breastfeed in the side lying position at night especially if their baby adopts this coping technique.

Some moms find alternate solutions when confronted with a baby who won’t take the bottle. They may work it out to have their sitter bring the baby to work at lunch for breastfeeding. They may ask their employer if they can work at home via the computer, develop a job share or even take the baby to work with them. Some moms are able to postpone their return to work until the baby is a little older and taking solids and drinking from a cup. These options are not available to everyone of course.

Good luck in your endeavor to provide nature’s very best for your baby as you return to employment. I hope I was able to help you find a solution that works for you and your baby.

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