Is your baby fussy every time you offer the breast? Do they cry, making it hard to breastfeed?
I’ve been there and know how it can be distressing when your baby is irritable while breastfeeding. It can make you question whether you’re doing something wrong and why the experience isn’t turning out how you imagined.
To help set your mind at ease and offer you some hope, we’ll share everything we know about what makes a baby upset during breastfeeding.
We’ll help you determine the cause of your baby’s fussiness. We’ll also offer our solutions so your breastfeeding sessions can return to being a peaceful experience you both enjoy.
Causes of Baby Crying During Feeding
Half the battle is finding out why your baby is crying and fussing when they should be enjoying their time at the breast. You want to know your baby is getting enough milk and thriving. But it’s hard to be sure when they always latch on and off, crying in between.
Let’s discuss some possible causes.
1. Baby Isn’t Latching On
If your baby is fussing or crying, getting them to latch on to feed can be challenging. Whether overtired, overstimulated, or just plain hungry, a crying baby is unlikely to latch.
Begin breastfeeding while your baby is calm and awake, before they get too hungry. Watch for early hunger cues such as rooting, smacking their lips, sucking their hands, sticking their 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 your 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 may have become engorged with milk during the night and your baby can’t cope with this forceful let-down.
Conversely, if they are fussier in the evenings, maybe the milk release 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.
These are some of the things you can do to counteract this:
- 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 your baby on and then lie back against some cushions or pillows. Milk will flow against gravity and won’t pour down your baby’s throat.
- Burp regularly: When your milk is flowing fast, your baby may 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 your baby is feeding on, they might stop fussing.
- Take a feeding break: 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 offer the breast again when it stops. This might make your baby fussier for a while, but it will pay off in the long run.
The Solution for Slow Milk Flow
Your baby is hungry, but your milk is not coming quick enough. Just as we can get “hangry” when we need food or drink and aren’t getting it, our babies can too!
Luckily, we have some things you can try to combat a slow flow or delayed let-down:
- 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 before and during a feed can help the milk flow faster.
- Try breast compressions: If you notice your baby is about to start fussing and might unlatch, squeeze your breast. This will give your baby 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, 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. Ensure 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. Their weight and length will increase, as will their head circumference.
Your baby may want to feed more often during a growth spurt 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 and clingy, and they may not sleep as well as usual.
Growth spurts generally happen several times during the first year. These are the ages when they are likely to occur:
- 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 your supply to catch up with the demand. The more you let your baby feed, the more milk your breasts will produce.
Your baby may seem 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; let family and friends help with chores and shopping while you spend time with your 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 that during these periods, your baby becomes more curious and distracted while feeding. They might want to feed more or, conversely, not stay latched on long enough for a good feed. They can be cranky and fussy and cry a lot when you’re trying to breastfeed.
The good news is that these periods generally only last a few days before your baby returns to normal behavioral patterns.
Not all babies will fit into the pattern of wonder weeks and develop at different times.
Feed your baby in a quiet room where there are likely to be fewer distractions. There’s nothing worse than having a situation where your little one latches on, then hears their dad or sees the dog and stops feeding (or worse yet, turns their head with your nipple still in their mouth!).
Trying to get your baby to pay attention can make them fussier and be a constant battle.
You might also find that your baby is fussier and wants to feed more often during these periods. Again, take your cue from them, and give them the extra time and attention they need.
5. Baby Needs to Burp
Babies 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 usual 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 to do it when switching breasts or when your baby latches off the nipple.
Other Reasons for Crying During Breastfeeding
We’ve looked at some of the main reasons your baby might cry while breastfeeding. There are a few other things that 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 your baby only fusses when fed on one side.
- Teething: This can be a painful and uncomfortable time for your baby, and they might fuss more when feeding. You might first realize it’s happening when they clamp down on your nipple and you feel the teeth through the gums. I’m all too familiar with that pain! But trust me, your baby isn’t trying to hurt you; they just want to relieve their pain (4).
- Baby has eaten enough: If your little one starts fussing toward the end of a feed, this might be a sign they’ve had enough. Try offering the breast again a few times. 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 but still wants to suckle. However, it can be frustrating for them when milk is still flowing. This could be an excellent time to offer a pacifier for them to suckle.
- Thrush: This fungal infection can affect your nipples or a baby’s mouth. If your baby has oral thrush, feeding will be uncomfortable, and they can get fussy. If you suspect this, contact your health care provider (5).
- Baby has a cold: Trying to feed and breathe through a stuffy nose simultaneously can be challenging for a little one. They will become fussy and break away from the breast a lot. Use a nasal aspirator to try to clear their nose, or ask your pediatrician for advice.
- Food sensitivity or allergy: While you might enjoy eating spicy food for dinner, your baby may not. The flavor of the food you eat comes through in your milk, and your little one might not always like the taste or the smell. You might notice they are fussier when you have consumed certain foods they don’t like or are allergic to (6).
- Reflux: Although it’s not very 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 causing your baby to be fussy or cry during breastfeeding.