Is your baby fussy every time you offer the breast? Do they cry, making it hard to breastfeed?
It can be distressing when your baby is irritable while breastfeeding.
In this article, we will cover the most common reasons why a baby can be upset during breastfeeding, and how you can work out why your baby is getting fussy at the breast.
Causes of Baby Crying During Feeding
Half the battle is finding out why your baby is crying and fussing in the first place. You want nothing more than to know your baby is getting enough milk and thriving. But it’s hard to be sure when they latch on and off all the time, crying in between.
Let’s have a look at some of the things to consider in solving this problem.
1. Baby Isn’t Latching On
If your baby is being fussy or crying, getting them to latch on to feed can be a challenge. Whether they’re overtired, overstimulated, or just plain hungry, a crying baby is unlikely to latch.
Begin breastfeeding while your baby is calm and awake, and before they get too hungry. Watch for early hunger cues such as rooting, smacking lips, sucking hands, sticking tongue out or waking from sleeping. Crying is a late sign of hunger.
Another thing you can try is squeezing a few drops of milk onto your breast to entice baby to latch on. The taste and smell of the milk might stimulate them to feed. Changing position or changing breasts can also work sometimes (1).
2. The Milk Flow Is Too Fast or Too Slow
Paying attention to when your baby starts to cry might shed some light on the reason.
If your baby is fussier in the morning, it could be that your overly full breasts release too much milk too quickly. Your breasts have become engorged with milk during the night and baby can’t cope with this forceful let-down.
Conversely, if they are fussier in the evenings, maybe the release of milk is too slow and they get frustrated. They become impatient waiting for the flow of milk that comes with the let-down and start crying.
The Solution for Fast Milk Flow
A strong release of milk, or overactive let-down, can make your little one choke, gag, or cough when they’re feeding. They might unlatch from the breast because they don’t like or can’t cope with the fast flow. They could also be gulping a lot of air with the milk and getting gassy, which causes more upset.
Some of the things you can do to counteract this are:
- Express before feeding: Pumping some of your milk before feeding, or expressing by hand, can help slow down the flow. After you feel the first let-down pass and you see the flow is slowing, put your baby to your breast.
- Lie back when nursing: Adopting a laid-back feeding position with your baby lying on top of you can slow the flow. You could latch the baby on and then lie back against some cushions or pillows. Milk will be flowing against gravity and won’t pour down baby’s throat.
- Burp regularly: When your milk is flowing fast, the chances are baby will gulp lots of air while feeding. A gassy baby is a fussy baby, so burp them regularly, during and after the feed.
- Feed one side at a time: Alternate your breasts at each feed. That way, once the flow slows down on the breast baby is feeding on, they might stop fussing.
- Take a break in feeding: If your flow is too much for your little one to cope with, remove them from the breast for a few seconds. Let the excess milk leak onto a towel and, when it stops, offer the breast again. This might make your baby fussier for a short while but will pay off in the long run.
The Solution for Slow Milk Flow
Baby is hungry but your milk is just not coming quick enough. I know how I feel when I want something to eat or drink and can’t get it — I think the word used to describe it these days is hangry. Well, babies are the same! They can get fussy and frustrated because they’re not getting the milk quick enough.
Luckily, there are things you can do to combat a slow flow or delayed let-down. These include:
- Stimulate the flow: Either pumping or hand expressing a little milk before latching can kick-start your let-down reflex. Once you have a steady flow, then you can put your baby to your breast.
- Warm compress: Use a warm towel or compress for a few minutes, to stimulate letdown. Place it on your breasts just before each feed.
- Massage: Massaging your breasts both before and during a feed can help the milk flow a bit faster.
- Try breast compressions: If you notice your baby is about to start fussing and might unlatch, squeeze your breast. This will provide your baby with a burst of milk, keeping them actively feeding.
- Get comfortable: Breastfeeding a fussy baby can be frustrating for you as well. Try and feed in a relaxing position, away from distractions. It’s a perfect time to just concentrate on your baby.
- Make sure your baby gets enough milk: All that fussing and crying might make your little one tired and they may fall asleep at the breast before they’ve eaten enough. Try and stimulate them to continue feeding by tickling their foot or stroking their cheek. The more your baby feeds, generally, the more milk you will produce.
- Some dos and don’ts: When breastfeeding, avoid smoking and alcohol. Also, try and steer clear of soda and coffee. All these could affect your milk production. Make sure you eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated, too (2).
3. Baby Is Going Through a Growth Spurt
There are times during a baby’s first year of life when they go through growth spurts. At this time, their weight and length will increase, as will their head circumference.
Accompanying a growth spurt, your baby may want to feed more and can become fussy. It’s not uncommon for a baby to suddenly feed up to 18 times in 24 hours.
While one does not necessarily lead to the other, it makes sense that a growth spurt and sudden frequent feeding go hand in hand. Your baby will need more milk to support the growth spurt, and nursing more will naturally boost your supply.
During this time, babies can also become fussier than usual. They might appear unsettled, clingy, and not sleep as well as usual.
Growth spurts generally happen several times during the first year. These are at:
- Two weeks old.
- Three weeks old.
- Six weeks old.
- Three months old.
- Six months old.
Not all babies will follow this timetable, some might have more growth spurts or they may be at different times. For some babies, there might be no change in their behavior when they have a growth spurt.
During this time, follow your baby’s lead. Respond to their needs, whether it’s more feeds, extra cuddles, or just quiet time and a nap.
Your baby might get fussy if you aren’t producing as much milk as they want. It can take a day or so for supply to catch up with demand. The more you let your baby feed, the more milk your breasts will produce.
It might be that your baby still seems hungry after normal feeding time, so don’t be afraid to nurse again. Keep yourself feeling good during this time by staying hydrated and eating balanced meals. Remember you are not superwoman, and let family and friends help with chores and shopping while your time is taken up with the baby.
4. Baby Is Going Through a Developmental Stage
Your baby is constantly developing mentally and learning new skills as they go along. It can be a bit overwhelming and confusing for them and there might be weeks when they are fussier than usual. Sometimes called the wonder weeks, it can explain mood changes in your baby (3).
You might find during these periods your baby becomes more curious and distracted when it comes to feeding. They might want to feed more, or conversely, not stay latched on long enough for a good feed. They can be cranky, fussy, and cry a lot when you’re trying to breastfeed.
The good news is that these periods generally only last a few days and baby returns to their normal behavioral patterns. Not all babies will fit into the pattern of wonder weeks and develop at different times.
Feed baby in a quiet room where there are likely to be fewer distractions. There’s nothing worse than having a situation where they latch on, then hear dad or see the dog and stop feeding (or worse yet, turn their head with your nipple still in their mouth!). Trying to get your baby to pay attention can make them fussier and end up a constant battle.
You might also find during these periods that your baby is fussier and wants to feed more often. Again, take your cue from them and give them the extra time and attention they need.
5. Baby Needs to Burp
Babies will often fuss, cry, or pull away from the breast when they need to burp. A fast flow of milk can exacerbate this. They can also swallow more air when they’re fussy, or gulp down milk faster than normal if they’re over-hungry.
Breastfed babies tend not to need burping as often as bottle-fed ones. However, there are times when gas can make them uncomfortable and they need to get it out.
If your baby is fussing, stop the feed and try and burp them. If you let them carry on feeding while they’re crying, then they can take in more air and make the problem worse. Eventually, it can end up with them spitting up.
It’s a good idea to burp your little one mid-feed, even if they don’t appear to be in too much discomfort. Try and do it when switching breasts or when baby latches off the nipple.
Other Reasons for Crying During Breastfeeding
We’ve looked at some of the main reasons your baby might be crying while breastfeeding. There are a few other things which can cause this, including:
- Baby prefers one side: Your milk supply might be better on one breast than the other. This may be apparent if baby only fusses when fed on one side.
- Teething: This can be a painful and uncomfortable time for baby and they might fuss more when feeding. You could first realize it’s happening when they clamp down on your nipple and you feel the teeth through the gums. Trust me, they aren’t trying to hurt you, they just want to relieve their pain (4).
- Baby has eaten enough: If your little one starts fussing towards the end of a feed, this might be a sign they’ve had enough. Try offering the breast again a few times and, if they don’t want it, move on. If you have ruled out any other causes for their crying, their little tummy might be full.
- Baby wants to be pacified: Your little one might be full to the brim and just want to suckle, but gets frustrated that milk is still flowing. This could be a good time to offer a finger or a pacifier for them to suckle, to soothe them.
- Thrush: This fungal infection can affect either your nipples or a baby’s mouth. If your baby has oral thrush, then feeding will be uncomfortable for them and they can get fussy. If you suspect this, contact your healthcare provider (5).
- Baby has a cold: Trying to feed and breathe at the same time is no walk in the park for a little one. They will become fussy and break away from the breast a lot. Try to clear their nose or ask your pediatrician for advice.
- Food sensitivity or allergy: While you might enjoy a curry for dinner, your baby may not. What you eat comes through in your milk, and they might not like the taste or the smell. You might notice they are fussier when you have consumed certain foods which they don’t like or are allergic to (6).
- Reflux: Although not that common in breastfed babies, sometimes food comes back up from a baby’s stomach. This can make them cry and feel uncomfortable when feeding (7). Speak with your baby’s doctor if you suspect this is the cause for your baby’s crying at the breast.
The Bottom Line
While there are many reasons a baby might be fussy when you’re breastfeeding, bear in mind, all babies get grouchy sometimes. It might not be breastfeeding that’s the cause.
It’s sometimes worth going back to basics and having a skin-to-skin cuddle, taking a bath with your baby, or going out for a walk and a change of scenery. When your baby is calm and settled, then try feeding them again. You might find this is a more successful option.
Every day and every feed can be different, so don’t get disheartened and think breastfeeding is not for you and your baby. Perseverance can pay off and, once you identify why your baby is fussing, you can have peaceful, bonding feeding times.