Baby Crying at the Breast, Is It A Sign Of A Decrease In Milk Supply?
A baby crying at the breast can be deeply upsetting and frustrating for any mom. What should be a blissful event is shattered by the feelings of inadequacy and rejection. I know how heart-wrenching this can be, but take comfort, crying at the breast happens to almost every mom. It happens to moms with normal milk supply, moms with over supply and moms with low milk supply, so it’s not a good indicator of low milk supply. So what’s going on when a baby is crying at the breast?
Babies cry at the breast for usually one of three reasons: frustration with flow, discomfort, or they want something else entirely.
Baby Crying at the Breast Reason #1: Frustration with Flow
- Delayed flow – Milk usually isn’t ready to squirt into baby’s mouth at the first suck. For most of us, nipple stimulation causes oxytocin to be released and that hormone causes the let-down reflex. This process can take up to a few minutes. Some babies are patient and don’t seem to mind waiting for the flow to start, others are not so patient. Impatient babies want the milk NOW and will complain bitterly if it doesn’t start flowing when they want. If your baby takes a bottle some of the time, they can get used to getting the milk immediately upon sucking, this can cause them to feel frustrated waiting for the let-down to happen. If you have an impatient baby or suspect you might have delayed flow, talk to your baby. Tell him, “It’s okay. The milk is coming. Stick with it.” When he pops off to complain keep encouraging him and put him back on. If baby is regularly frustrated at the beginning of your feedings while waiting for the let-down, you can try doing some manual nipple stimulation, or pumping for a few minutes to get the milk flowing before latching baby. Delayed flow can also happen in the middle of a nursing session when you are between let-downs or when the breast has been mostly emptied. If you suspect this, comfort your baby and encourage him to stay latched. You can try manually stimulating the other breast to help baby trigger your let-down reflex.
- Slow flow – Breasts are never empty. Even after your baby exhausts the milk your breast has stored, your body will continue to make milk and deliver it to your baby while he’s sucking. But the flow of this milk can be very slow compared to the flow of banked-up milk. (Banked-up milk within the breast increases the internal pressure in the breast, which creates faster flow.) When milk is flowing slowly, baby may get frustrated and cry at the breast. After all, sucking is a lot of work and if he’s not being rewarded for that work, he’s going to complain to the manager.Slow milk flow during the first 10 minutes of a nursing session is a symptom of low milk supply. However, slow flow can also result from a poor latch. Poor latching results in poor milk withdrawal, which will cause the body to make less milk. Always ensure a proper latch.
- Flow preference – This happens when babies are given bottles (either breast milk or formula), especially bottles with nipples faster than size zero or “newborn.” Like all humans, babies enjoy instant gratification. They get that with a bottle – milk flows at the first suck and doesn’t stop until the bottle is empty. It’s amazing! And it’s addictive.A baby who becomes “hooked” on the flow of a bottle, may begin crying at the breast. He doesn’t understand why at the breast there’s no milk flowing at the beginning then there’s flow, but then that slows down for a while, then more flow. It’s frustrating! Baby will arch, be fussy, scream or push at the breast and often a mom will see this as a sure sign that baby isn’t getting enough milk, when really he just wants faster flow. Clever babies will quickly train their mothers to give him a bottle after he “puts in his time” at the breast.It’s worth repeating: A baby will quickly train his mother. In no time, he’ll figure out that if he acts as though he’s not getting any milk at the breast and cries out in hunger after nursing, he’ll get a bottle. The more bottles he gets, the less interested he is in “fighting” the breast for milk flow.
- Overactive letdowns – Sometimes babies cry at the breast because there’s too much flow. Milk comes so frequently that baby doesn’t get a break to literally catch his breath. (Remember: mom may or may not feel these letdowns.) This is often accompanied by coughing and sputtering. Baby might also pull off for a break and to complain that he feels like he’s drowning.
- Too much flow – This is similar to overactive letdowns. Too much flow is a result of an over supply of milk. The letdown reflex cycles are normal, but when they happen baby is “drown” in a large release of milk and will often pop off, cough, sputter and cry. Both overactive letdowns, and oversupply are often accompanied by baby having green stools. To correct an over supply of milk, nurse baby on only one breast each feeding. Alternate breasts at each feeding. This will leave milk in the breasts long enough for the body to begin cutting production. Please do this only if baby’s weight gain is good and baby is producing 4 or more sopping wet diapers each day.
Baby Crying at the Breast Reason #2: Discomfort
Babies can feel discomfort while nursing and will cry at the breast to let you know. Sometimes it’s simple like needing to burp or change positions. For the first few months, my second child did not like nursing on the left side – it always made her uncomfortable to lay across my body, maybe it was a muscle imbalance or she needed an adjustment. I don’t know. But I always had to nurse her in the football hold – otherwise she would complain. By four months of age, she had grown out of it.
Sometimes teething can make it painful for baby to nurse and will cry at the breast because they want to nurse but their gums are sensitive and it is painful to breastfeed.
Another possibility is reflux disease. If your baby spits up a lot, he may have reflux. In some cases the reflux is so severe that baby begins to associate the burning in his throat with breastfeeding. He may not want to nurse and will cry at the breast because he knows the discomfort will follow. If you suspect this may be affecting your baby, seek medical advice from a professional. In the meantime, here’s some things to try: Nurse more frequently, but for a shorter time. The smaller the meal, the better. While nursing, keep baby’s head higher than his stomach. Keep baby upright for 25 minutes after every nursing. Burp baby really well and when you lay him down, always make sure it is on a gentle incline with his head higher than the rest of his body.
Baby Crying at the Breast Reason #3: Baby Wants Something Else
Sometimes a baby that’s crying at the breast simply wants to do something other than nurse. My second child would do this around bedtime. The first time it happened, she’d keep popping off the breast and crying. With my struggles with low milk supply, my thoughts immediately jumped to that she wasn’t getting enough milk, so I kept trying to put her on. She kept crying until I finally laid her in her crib, where she sighed, put her arms up over her head and went right to sleep.
Her fussiness was about her feeling really tired and wanting to go to bed! This behavior continued for several weeks and was a great sign to me that she was ready to be laid down for bedtime. So perhaps your baby isn’t uncomfortable or frustrated with milk flow. Perhaps your baby just wants to do something different. Try getting up and walking around and see if baby settles down. If he truly is hungry, he’ll continue to cry and you can try breastfeeding again.
These are the three common causes for a baby crying at the breast. And while it is worrisome and frustrating for the parents, by keeping these causes in mind you’re one step closer to figuring out the reason. Keep at it. You can do it!