Boob or Bust: What to do when baby refuses the bottle

Sometimes babies suck. Especially when they refuse to suck on anything but mum's home brew fresh from the source.

Father feeding bottle baby girl

When you are a post-pubescent virgin, desperate but playing it cool, having sex feels like something that may never happen for you. This is deeply terrifying – scarier than sharks, nuclear war, or a jump-scare of Peter Dutton, gurning suddenly at your window during a storm like The Babadook.

Fast-forward a decade, through shitty breakups and forgotten so-so one-night-stands and into the early days of a child-producing marriage when sex feels like a forgotten language, and this youthful anxiety seems almost comical.

You’ll probably have sex, eventually, a younger you once conceded, wincing-not-laughing through The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But what if you… don’t? What if you’re one of the odd ones out?

Getting your kid to take the bottle is – seriously – a bit like this. Parents who’ve succeeded become flippant: “just try heaps of stuff”, they shrug, “and you’ll get there”.

“Be persistent,” they say, in a well-meant, reassuring tone that feels as smug and condescending as a Tesla driver. “It’ll happen.”

Inside the bubble, though, the struggle is real.

Drink it! It’s right there!

I know. My boy didn’t take the bottle. Or, more accurately, he did take the bottle at first, when we tried at two months after breastfeeding exclusively. Triumphant, we stopped. What a baby genius! That was easy – back to the boob.

But when we tried again, at four months, he was no longer our baby genius. We had a deadline: six months, when my wife was due to return to work. As a modern schlub, faced with this absurdity (“You’re bawling because you’re hungry, but the food is IN YOUR MOUTH! IT’S LITERALLY IN YOUR MOUTH! EAT THE FOOD!”), I first searched for advice online.

‘Baby won’t take bottle,’ I typed.

I got more than 33 million hits.

Topmost was a blog by a super-qualified international breastfeeding expert, Katie Madden, whose name dragged an alphabet soup of qualifications across the page: RN (registered nurse), BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), IBLCE (certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners).

“Aha!” I thought, “She’ll get my wife back to work.”

“My baby never took a bottle,” wrote Madden, the world’s leading breastfeeding consultant, of her own experience. “I can’t remember the exact details because, well, I was a crazy, exhausted, emotional, overwhelmed new mother myself.

“Do you want to know what happened in the end? I quit my [nursing] job.”

“Aha!” I thought, “We’re screwed.”

Why did nobody tell us this?

My wife makes more money than me. I am cool with this, because duh. She is an engineer.

During her six months (unpaid) maternity leave, we’d gone interest-only on the mortgage and survived on my salary, and as a consequence, my Visa had started to recoil violently at my touch; it appeared to have a traumatic and violent form of PTSD.

In the quiet of the night, I could feel my card rocking back and forth in my wallet, wailing like a war widow.

Googling further, I found that – even if mum was breastfeeding exclusively – we should have considered giving baby a regular, occasional bottle feed of expressed breast milk from two months of age, when the kid’s natural sucking reflex is more pronounced, to accustom them to suckling from something other than a boob.

“Oh, fantastic,” I thought, looking with a genuine-if-undeserved rage at my screaming, bottle-dodging heir.

“If I’m looking for answers online, I obviously didn’t start bottle feeding my baby when it was two months old and it was easy, did I?”

They might as well be saying: ‘Dear poor people, you should have invested in Apple shares before the first iPhone dropped’. Piss off.

How we finally got there

I’m not going to lie: it took a long time, and exhaustive strategising. There’s no perfect answer, and scores of imperfect ones, but I’ll tell you how it worked for us. Apologies if I sound smug. Losers.

First, we tried someone other than mum – me – feeding him expressed breast milk. Didn’t work.

Then we tried feeding him in different chairs and rooms, with mum absent. Didn’t work.

Then – screw it – we went straight to formula. Didn’t work.

We tried it warm, like breast milk from the source (“It’s what he’s used to!”) and room temp, and then cold (“It’s a different flavour, so it should be a different temperature than what he’s used to!”). Didn’t work.

The baby on the colossal, expensive formula tin’s glorious smile mocked us from the countertop.

My wife’s return-to-work date crept closer. The coming storm became more threatening. The horizon seemed to rush towards us, angrily, thunderclouds rumbling like a flatulent Thor.

We researched different bottles. Perhaps the milk from our Nuk bottles gushed out too quickly, gagging him. Some forum recommended Pigeon bottles. But their teats were too small, and he recoiled at the plastic collar on his lips.

We tried jamming them into his gob, to force a seal, and just letting the tip brush his lips, and all in between. Didn’t work.

Finally I bought a massively teated Tommee Tippee bottle, which looked to my eyes more like a boob, and filled it with breast milk. And just bouncing the bottle on my knee, as he sat on my lap, I waited for him to grab at it. It didn’t work… very much.

But it worked a bit.

First with breast milk. And also with warm water. With him mostly upright, snuggled into my arm, hungry but not famished. And he learned… although until then, every few seconds of suckling were an eternity, knowing that if he refused the bottle, his mother would, perhaps, have to quit her shiny, paid work. Shitty, everlasting seconds.

After this point it took maybe a fortnight before he’d drink from just any old bottle. Plus an expensive new imported European baby formula, the success of which I suspected was random, and which we’d gradually wean him off. And which, in the meantime, was doing so much for German foreign debt levels that I suspected I could request nudes from Angela Merkel.

In the post-State-of-Origin-victory words of Queensland forward Sam Thaiday, “It was a bit like losing your virginity – it wasn’t very nice but we got the job done.”

So, those parents who had any easy time of it weren’t that far off. Good luck. Be persistent. It’ll happen.

A quick note – we say “don’t stress, you’ll get there!”. But the reality is, this advice only works for parents whose babies are refusing to feed because they are stubborn little arses. If you suspect there’s more to it, best see your doctor.

Related: DAD’s guide to bottle feeding