Most moms aim to give their babies mama’s milk because it’s deemed the healthiest and most beneficial part of infancy. But of course, not every mom can—and not every mom should—nurse their babies. Beyond uncommon conditions and scenarios, there are a lot of times when milk just isn’t working for the baby.
Whether it’s some things not quite right on mom’s end or the baby is making their opinions known from an early age, a lot of factors go into the mom-baby nursing relationship. So to be successful, moms are often worrying about a lot of different things. From how often the baby eats to how their latch is looking, there are a lot of nuances to look out for.
And sure, many of these things can be fixed. But that takes time, commitment, and the right support! After all, mamas can’t just go it alone on everything, especially when it’s their first time attempting to nurse a baby.
While many mamas get help from a lactation consultant, sometimes things pop up later that become a problem, too. Wherever a mom is at in her nursing—or pumping—journey, here are 20 signs that breastmilk isn’t working for the baby.
20 Too “Lazy” To Latch
While it doesn’t sound very nice to call a baby lazy, sometimes, when it comes to nursing, it’s the truth! But what lactation consultants and pediatricians mean about a baby being “lazy” is usually that something is keeping them from getting a good latch. After all, the latch is key to a successful breastfeeding baby. So if the baby is having trouble latching on, something that’s common with newborns and especially babies who are preemies, they can’t get the milk they need. In that scenario, there’s no way the milk can work for them because they’re not putting in the work to get it out.
19 Looking A Little Yellow
Another nursing issue that’s common in the first few days of life and can indicate an issue with the breastmilk is when babies have jaundice. Jaundice by itself is really common—in both term and preemie babies—and it usually resolves itself within the first few days. The “cure” is just everyday eating for a baby, because drinking milk helps them eliminate the stuff that builds up and makes them look yellow and feel sluggish. But if a baby isn’t getting enough milk, that can keep them from getting over jaundice as quickly as a formula-fed baby, who gets a consistent and larger amount of milk at every feeding.
18 Diaper Duty Becomes A Drag
No parent really enjoys diaper duty, right? But sometimes it’s easier than others to get the baby clean without gagging. One of the signs that breastmilk isn’t working for the baby is particularly potent diapers, however. Many babies wind up having what most lactation experts call an imbalance in foremilk versus hindmilk. While there’s not a clear divide between the two “types” of milk, milk at the beginning of the feeding is normally waterier and thinner (foremilk), while hindmilk is thicker and has more fat. If a mom is engorged, for example, the baby is likely to get a big drink of waterier milk first, and that kind of thing can cause tummy troubles.
17 Tummy Troubles Start Up
Another tummy problem that’s a sign the breastmilk (or something in it) isn’t necessarily working for the baby. And this one stresses a lot of moms out, because it involves their babies having uncomfortable or even painful number twos. All kinds of tummy troubles can crop up, but most commonly, babies get constipated or start having runny stools or other types of diaper issues. A lot of the time, this can be a sign that the baby is having trouble with something in their mom’s diet. Mom’s diet directly impacts the breastmilk, after all, so a lot of the time she’ll start an elimination diet to try and zero in on the problem food.
16 No Smelly Diapers To Speak Of
One of the sort of neat things about breastfed babies is that they don’t necessarily have soiled diapers every single day. That’s the most common, sure, but a breastfed baby who is digesting most of what’s in their feeding (since mom’s milk is so easy to digest) may not poo for days at a time. After all, if there aren’t any “leftovers” after the baby’s body uses the nutrients in the milk, nothing will come out the other end! However, not having stinky diapers isn’t a good sign if it drags on for days or even weeks at a time. That’s a sign that the breastmilk isn’t working in some way to move things along.
15 Baby’s A Little Dry
A baby with dry skin might arrive that way—after all, it’s very wet inside the womb. Some babies seem to run out of their protective coating (vernix), especially if they’re late term. Either way, a baby with dry skin can be completely normal, but if your baby’s skin is perfectly plump at first but then starts to dry out, it could be a sign that the breastmilk isn’t doing its job. Or, rather, that the baby isn’t drinking enough milk to get the job done. A lot of babies have trouble nursing at first, and there’s also the fact that mom’s milk doesn’t come in full-force for a day or sometimes a few days.
14 Weird Rashes Crop Up
Another sign that something in the mom’s milk isn’t sitting well with a baby is the presence of unexplained rashes. Sure, babies get skin irritation sometimes, but if you haven’t changed your laundry detergent or bath soap recently, rashes can also indicate a food allergy. In that case, it’s clearly something else the baby is reacting to. Whether it’s another thing in their environment or their food is sort of up for debate, but many moms find that after cutting out certain foods or beverages, their babies’ skin clears up. Of course, if it doesn’t, it could be something else that’s the problem and not that the breastmilk isn’t working out.
13 Swallowing Isn’t Easy
Some babies, especially those with other conditions, have trouble swallowing milk. They might seem to be gurgling a lot, or they might even have trouble breathing. In some rare cases, babies might not be able to drink their milk straight from the tap. Instead, they’ll need their milk thickened to be able to drink it safely, which means either that the mom has to express milk or that she has to switch to formula. The good thing is, this type of problem isn’t usually about the milk itself, it’s just a texture or consistency problem. And, some babies grow out of it later.
12 Baby Stays Small
There’s a lot of variation when it comes to breastfed babies, so judging little ones by size alone is not only inaccurate but also not necessarily safe! However, most moms notice when their babies either aren’t hitting milestones or simply aren’t growing much. Every baby has their own growth curve, sure, but if a baby isn’t making any progress on their own custom curve, that might be cause for concern. And, it could mean that the baby is having trouble with their breastmilk. Some babies even have protein issues that cause breastmilk to not be healthy for them, so it’s something worth checking out if your baby has this issue.
11 Seeing Massive Amounts Of Spit-Up
Most babies spit up at least a little bit. But some babies seem to spit up after every feeding and even in between. And sure, there are other causes apart from what the baby is eating. From allergies to just positioning improperly, a lot of babies have trouble with mealtimes. But for some babies, they have a tough time keeping breastmilk down, and that’s a clear sign that the milk isn’t working for that baby. It could be the mom’s eating habits that could be a problem, since allergies often arise in nursing babies, or it could be the way the baby is eating—whether too fast or oddly positioned where too much milk is pouring in before they can swallow.
10 Mom’s Feeling Engorged
Being engorged—totally full of milk—isn’t usually fun. But many women wind up with oversupply when nursing their babies, meaning they have more milk than what their babies actually need. In other cases, though, moms can feel engorged because their babies aren’t getting enough (or any) milk out. If a mom is regularly nursing her baby but the baby seems fussy (or a whole host of other symptoms) and the mom feels engorged, it’s likely that her kiddo is struggling to drink the milk. The baby might have a latch problem or it could be that there’s so much milk making everything rock hard that they can’t get a good grip!
9 The Latch Hurts
Plenty of moms say nursing is uncomfortable and even painful at first. At the same time, many lactation consultants and pediatricians say that nursing shouldn’t hurt. So which one is it? That sort of depends who you ask, because many moms have very divisive experiences. Many moms feel uncomfortable or in pain at first, and then as they learn how to nurse their babies more easily the pain and discomfort fades. So overall, moms shouldn’t be struggling with pain every time their baby latches on. If the latch still hurts after working with a lactation consultant or after a few months of nursing, it could mean that breastfeeding isn’t easy for the baby.
8 Baby Is Super Sensitive To Mom's Cuppa
Lots of moms cut out caffeine and a ton of other indulgences when they’re pregnant. But then when the baby comes, it’s super tempting to go back to having at least a cup or two of coffee per day, and maybe a bit of chocolate, too. And for most of us, drinking caffeine doesn’t seem to affect the baby. But for some mom and baby duos, caffeine can wreak havoc on the breastfeeding relationship. Some babies get hyped up off mom’s cuppa, and they could be restless, jittery, not sleep well, and even have otherwise unexplained crying jags. Those are clear signs that something in the milk isn’t working for them!
7 Baby’s Hangry All The Time
Some babies nurse a lot. In fact, experts note that newborns might “cluster feed”—eat frequently for short periods—for days on end at first. And it’s all to help the mom’s body to make more milk. But what if the baby still seems hungry? Apart from crying or rooting around for food, babies who aren’t satisfied with breastmilk will often be pretty grumpy! They may also have trouble relaxing—relaxed and open hands are a sign of a satiated baby. On the other hand, a baby whose tiny hands are always in fists could still be hungry even after a meal with mom.
6 Continuous Crying On Overtime
There’s sort of a phenomenon in the parenting world with babies who just seem to be cranky for no good reason. Doctors have termed it “colic,” which basically means long crying jags with no explanation. Helpful, right? But for some families, it often turns out that once they switch from the mom nursing to giving the baby formula, those issues go away. That’s not to say that formula is always the solution to colic problems, but it does seem like constant crying could be an indicator of the breastmilk not sitting right with the baby. For whatever reason, they’re just not feeling well or digesting the milk properly, which leads to them being upset all the time.
5 Frozen Milk Tastes Funky
For mamas who express milk, that’s an entirely different experience from nursing 24/7. It’s also challenging because not only do you have to directly feed the baby, if you’re doing that, but you also have to schedule your pumping time, wash parts, store milk, and more. And one common problem with storing milk comes when mamas freeze it and then defrost to feed the baby later. Some moms’ milk can have excess lipase, which is an enzyme. But the problem is, once milk with excess lipase is frozen and then defrosted, it has a really gross taste, like soap or just a sour flavor. Obviously, most babies won’t want this milk because it doesn’t taste fresh—and you can’t blame them!
4 Skipping Milk For Table Food
While most experts say that food before one is just for fun, many parents still give their babies pureed baby food starting at around six months old. The thing is, even if a baby is eating solids, they still need the nutrients from breastmilk or formula. But as they get older and their appetites increase, they’ll tend to want more and more table food. But if mom skips nursing before meals, the baby will likely fill up on those table foods and then not want to nurse. In that case, the breastmilk isn’t working for the baby because they’re too eager to get to bigger and chewier foods. The only solution is for mamas to nurse first or pump, or they could lose their supply!
3 Trading Mom For A Bottle
Although it doesn’t sound very nice—or accurate—to call a baby “lazy,” sometimes that’s just what happens. When it comes to breastfeeding, eating can be a lot of work, especially for preemies or smaller babies. That’s why most lactation professionals recommend paced feeding—small amounts at a time—for nursing babies when their moms are away. Otherwise, the on-demand bottle feeding can cause babies to become too “lazy” to nurse from mom. Instead, they learn to prefer bottles that just pour the milk into their mouths, rather than working to get a letdown at the source. And it’s not that the breastmilk isn’t working, per se, but just that the work involved isn’t working out for the baby!
2 Topping Off With A Lot Of Milk
In general, most babies who latch effectively will encourage a healthy milk supply. That means that most breastfed babies get just what they need with no problems. However, if parents get into the habit of topping their babies off with a bottle, that could lead to breastmilk becoming more of a problem. Some older babies might learn that there’s a bottle coming, and so the same way that some babies are “lazy,” other babies learn to wait it out for an easier meal. Of course, some babies do need to “top off,” especially if they have other health issues, and that can be another sign that the milk isn’t working for them.
1 Not Enough To Go Around
In the end, one surefire sign that breastmilk isn’t working for the baby is if there’s simply not enough of it. If the mama gets lactation help and knows her baby is latching well but there’s still not milk flowing, that’s an issue. Overall, breastmilk won’t work for a baby if they’re not getting enough. And although “enough” varies for most babies as far as exact ounces per day, mamas often notice when their babies seem to still be hungry a lot or aren’t hitting milestones as expected. At the end of the day, not having enough milk is probably the number-one reason why breastmilk just doesn’t work for mamas. Fortunately, there are lots of fixes to get them and their babies back on track.