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How to Introduce a Bottle to a Breastfed Baby

(This is a piece I posted on my blog at evabild.ca back in 2014. I have been asked for it three times in the last week – so I thought I would post it here too! If you want to see what else I have written about babies and breastfeeding and sleep, go check out that website.)

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Let me start with a disclaimer. Not all babies need to have bottles. Babies who are doing well at the breast, and whose mothers are available and happy to provide the breast whenever the baby needs it, these babies do not need bottles. Not all mothers want to or need to spend time away from their babies. And some babies are peaceful and happy between feeds and can go 2-3 hours in the cuddly arms of the other parent or a grandparent while mom goes for a swim or a walk, or sings in her choir.

But some babies and mothers need bottles. Some mothers need time away from their babies, for their physical, emotional, financial or professional health. These babies need bottles. And the mothers, having followed the best advice from breastfeeding experts which is to offer only the breast for the first six weeks, sometimes find themselves at 6, or 8 or 12 weeks, trying to get a very breast-imprinted and irritated baby to take a bottle.

When babies are very new, in the first 4-6 weeks, they will suck on almost anything. A bottle nipple, or a breast, or a finger, or a pacifier, are all relatively easy for them to learn to use. But by 6-8 weeks, babies move on to using their mouths more for exploring and gumming and chewing. So when an 8-week-old baby is presented with a bottle nipple, that behaves in no way like a breast, the baby gets frustrated. Here is this thing in her mouth, it smells like milk, she can taste a little milk leaking out, but she can’t get it to work! Often, parents are given the advice to try the bottle with the baby when she is hungry, and that makes her even more irritated. And then Dad is holding her in his arms, in a position similar to the one in which she gets the breast, and instead she gets this hard rubbery thing which doesn’t work! So the baby howls, and the Dad or Parent or Other-Mother or Grandmother or Uncle feels very rejected indeed. So much for bonding with the baby by giving her a bottle!

Very often, parents will try many, many different sorts of bottle and nipples, trying for the one which the baby will “like.”  They often ask me what nipple I recommend. My hunch is that no matter what nipples they try, no matter what the order they try them in, the baby will finally take the sixth or seventh one they try. It’s not that they have finally found the right nipple, but that the baby got some practice.

So based on my basic knowledge of how to teach skills to children, and on some ideas I have gathered from clever, patient parents who have done this recently, here is the method I suggest. These instructions are intended for the Dad or other parent  – not the breastfeeding mom. This is a skill the baby needs to learn to do with someone else. That’s the whole point of the bottle, for someone else to be able to care for the baby. So let that start now.

Equipment

  • 1 baby in a good mood – not hungry, not sleepy
  • 2 bottles with plain, “slow-flow” silicone nipples (I recommend these because they are cheap and easy to find. If you have something else, use that. The only bottle  would not recommend is the “Calma” by Medela. That nipple is great for a newborn who has to be supplemented. But for a baby after 6 weeks, it’s going to be very frustrating.)
  • In one bottle – for the baby – put just 20ml of breast milk. (If you put more in the bottle, you will be bothered when it gets wasted and you will try to force the baby to take more. This is just going to be a practice session. Don’t expect too much. When you eventually teach this child to ride a bike, you won’t expect him to ride all the way to school on the first day, will you?)
  • In the other bottle – for you – put something that you would like to drink!
  • 1 car seat or bouncy chair

Procedure

  • Put the baby in the car seat or bouncy chair.
  • Put a happy, cheerful smile on your face and arm yourself with patience.
  • Talk to the baby and explain that the two of you are going to have a drink together. Remember, babies may not understand the words you say, but they are very good at picking up your emotions.
  • Suck on your bottle a bit and make some yum-yum noises.
  • Then offer the baby’s bottle to him. Let him explore it with his mouth.
  • As soon as he seems puzzled, take it away again, and show him how you suck on yours.
  • Make it a game. Sing a little song. Be really silly and happy. This makes babies relax.
  • Try a few times back a forth, baby’s turn, your turn.
  • As soon as the baby starts to look unhappy and has had enough of the game, stop right away. You want to create good associations with the bottle.
  • Remember, babies have a short attention span and they get tired and overstimulated quickly. So a five minute session is plenty!
  • Try again tomorrow, and the next day

Try every day, at the same time, if you can, but only when the baby is in a good mood. It may take a week, or more, but eventually, the baby will figure out how to get the milk to flow from the bottle. And you will have taught your baby a skill. Now that’s a way to bond with your baby!

If you try this out, do send me an email to let me know how it works for you! And let me know if you make any amendments or variations. I will give you full credit when I pass them on!