baby refusing bottle

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Today I’m continuing our series of questions and answers and in the process, inviting you to send your question into us! Today’s question comes from a Mum in my exercise class who is soon to return to work and is stressed that her baby is refusing to take a bottle.

Milly is 10 month’s old and has only ever been breastfed. Milly’s lovely Mum Esther is returning to work 2 days per week in 2 months time (when Milly turns 1) and despite how hard she tries, she simply won’t take formula or expressed breast milk from a bottle.

Esther’s experience with Milly is a very common concern amongst breastfeeding Mum’s who need to provide an alternative when they are going to be apart from their baby. It’s a concern that isn’t always easy to address, and can be a hugely stressful experience for any Mum planning to return to the workforce.

The first point I’d make is consider the age of your baby and how regularly you’re going to be away from them. Milly is going to be one when Mum returns to work 3 days per week. In this case there is really no need for her to be offered formula or breastmilk or even cow’s milk. Many parents are surprised to hear that milk is not an essential part of a toddler’s diet. By age one, babies can get enough energy and nutrients from the food they are eating. So long as they are eating other calcium rich foods (for example yoghurt and cheese and perhaps milk added to porridge or cereal), they will meet their calcium requirements. Offering water throughout the day will provide enough fluid. This is a revelation to many parents who are sure their babies need to progress to toddler formulas or cow’s milk if they are ceasing breast feeding.

For babies between 9 and 12 months it really depends on how often and for how long you’ll be leaving them. I’d usually recommend leaving either breastmilk or formula with the caregiver/ child care staff, but for many it quickly becomes apparent that bubs is going to do little more than take a few sips at best. Worse, continuing to force a bottle at a child that doesn’t want it, can be an unpleasant experience for all. You don’t want your baby making unpleasant associations with their caregiver or new place of care. If you’re only leaving your child for 1 or 2 days per week, I’d suggest you drop the worry and simply let the caregiver offer more food and water on those days. Breastfed your baby in the morning, as soon as you pick them up and then again before bed, and they’ll be just fine.

Between 6 and 9 months ideally you’d leave some expressed breastmilk or formula for baby, but as you inch closer to 9 months and depending on how regularly you need to leave your baby, the above advice may still work. Certainly under 6 months of age you’re going to need your baby to take something from a bottle.

My top tips for getting young babies to drink from a bottle include: Make sure they are sufficiently hungry and offer the bottle at their regular feed time, having allowed at least 3 hours between feeds (2 hours if the baby is very young and seems hungry). Bottles with teats that “mimic” the shape of the nipple are often better accepted than others. I like the Tommy Tippee range which you can find here:

Some babies will actively refuse the bottle no matter what you do. I have occasionally had success getting such babies (over 6 months of age) to drink from an open cup. This is messy and slow, but can be an option if you really need it.

Ideally someone other than the Mother should offer baby a bottle. As soon as baby is placed with Mum, they are going to want the familiar routine of a breastfeed.
Introducing a regular bottle early on (generally not before 6 weeks of age as during this time babies and Mums are still learning to breastfeed) can be helpful in getting them to accept a bottle long term. If you know you’re returning to work I’d suggest offering a regular bottle once or twice per week to get baby happily accepting a bottle long before it’s required.

In reality, persistence is the key. If you really need your baby to take a bottle, I’d put aside a whole day (perhaps a weekend day when the other parent is around offer it) to work on it. If they have refused the first time it’s offered. Wait an hour and try again. Be prepared to offer a large number of distractions and entertainment during this time as baby is likely to be getting hungry and cranky! The hungrier they get, the more likely they will give in and take what is offered. I won’t lie, this can be the most stressful of exercises, and if it all gets too much for you or your baby, put it aside and try again another day. The vast majority of babies eventually take enough to get them by at childcare and a good breastfeed before and after pick up, will help make up for any shortfall.

I’ve breastfed all four of my kids and have had mixed experiences trying to get each to accept a bottle. When my first child was four months old I returned to work 2 days a week for a short contract lasting a couple of months. Despite all my knowledge, pumping from day 1 and trying to introduce a bottle early, my little boy did not want a bar of it. The closer my return to work date loomed, the more stressed I became. My husband generally had more success with the bottle than I did, although my little boy took small amounts at best, and I generally returned home to a hysterical baby and distraught husband. With no other option, I returned to work and crossed my fingers that he would be okay. Luckily my Mum had volunteered to look after my little boy and her patience combined with my absence, resulted in him taking moderate amounts of expressed breastmilk on the days I was at work. He was never unhappy or stressed and I’m sure he made up for any difference with me breastfeeding him on demand when I returned home (ok so I may have run into the house on those nights peeling my clothes off as I did to feed him 😀).

I found the whole experience of trying to get my first child to take a bottle so stressful that by the time my second child came along I knew I didn’t want to repeat it. I wasn’t planning such an early return to work and so I simply didn’t worry about introducing a bottle in the early months. When he was 8 months old I returned to work 1 day per week. This time I made no plans or great attempts to get the bottle in before I started. I did leave some expressed breast milk with our nanny but after the first few weeks it was clear he had no interest and I was wasting my time. He was clearly happy with food and water and so I just left it at that. I continued to feed him morning and night and on demand as per usual on the other days of the week. Happy baby, happy Mum and his nutrition did not suffer as a result of the 10 hours each week where he got slightly less breastmilk than normal.
With my third and fourth children I planned longer maternity leaves and simply didn’t worry about introducing a bottle. For simplicities sake if I needed time away from them when they were very little, I did a mad dash between feeds. As they got older I used solids and water to stretch them out if I wasn’t going to make it home in time for their feed.

If you’ve got tips on how you got your child to take a bottle, we’d love to hear them!

Julia @ Bloom

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