In the early days of new motherhood, there are few things that make you feel as desperately upset as when your baby isn’t gaining weight properly. It’s then made even more devastating when they decide they don’t want to be breast or bottle fed.
Oral aversion is what the hospital and lactation consultant called it. I called it something else. Something I don’t think I should put into print. Suffice it to say it was an apt name that cannot be repeated.
What is oral aversion?
Typically, oral aversion is more common in premmie babies, but it can be displayed in older infants as well. Babies with oral aversion will demonstrate a reluctance, avoidance, or fear of eating or drinking. Or they may dislike any type of sensation around their mouths. It can be distressing to watch because they will appear hungry but refuse to eat. They cry loudly when it comes time to feed them, especially when they are put in the feeding position. In my daughter’s case, she also clamped her little mouth shut and refused to open it at all. At times we resorted to syringe feeding her and even then, we were often unsuccessful.
For my daughter, oral aversion came about for a few reasons.
When she was born my midwife called her a ‘natural latcher’. Despite this, she wasn’t gaining weight at the rate they expected. We were asked to give her bottle top ups after every breastfeed, which for a while was fine. The real problem came just as she was about to turn 7 weeks. We’d gone up to the hospital because she wouldn’t stop vomiting. It wasn’t just little vomits either. It was as if you’d jumped on a toothpaste tube - that kind of projectile vomiting. The hospital ended up keeping us in because her weight was sending up red flags as she still hadn’t cracked 4kg (after being born at 3.350kg). Officially, they labeled her with failure to thrive. And can I just say, nothing speaks to a parent’s confidence in their abilities more than putting the word failure in something *note intense sarcasm*. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by doctors and dieticians who were putting together a plan to help her gain weight. It involved an intense, around-the-clock feeding every 1.5 to 2 hours, which included breastfeeding, bottle top ups (using a hospital-supplied bottle), and high-calorie formula syringes. It was exhausting. In between all of this, I was also meant to express after every feed to help drain my breasts.
You know, at first it was fine. My daughter was drinking, even if it was half-heartedly. The more we tried to shove stuff into her mouth though, the worse it got. Because she was still taking milk, we were released home and that’s when things really got bad.
For over a week, my daughter just didn’t want to feed. She was hungry. You could tell she was. But she just didn’t want anything going near her mouth – not even a dummy in case there was going to be something else poured down her throat. I’m not sure I can accurately describe how devastatingly awful it was to sit down to feed her and have her suck for a minute and then pull off. Or when my husband tried to give her a bottle and she wouldn’t open her mouth for him at all. It would be distressing even if your baby was gaining weight well, but with the extra pressure of an underweight baby, I lived with a knot in my stomach as my constant companion.
So, what are you meant to do?
Life had already begun to feel like it was just one doctor or hospital appointment after another. But we were advised to seek additional support, so we added a lactation consultant and physio to our growing number of medical professionals. Now, don’t get me wrong, I will always be grateful for the love and care we received during this time. But I won’t lie – it was very difficult to handle, and my mental health suffered tremendously.
We saw a fabulous lactation consultant regularly who helped to get my daughter sucking for more than a couple of minutes. Although, once she started taking feeds again, it had become obvious that she was used to milk being poured down her throat and she’d lost her desire or ability to suck properly. Seeing the physio regularly helped us to get the strength back in her jaw to help with her feeding.
So, after all this, I became very reluctant to try a bottle with her again because I didn’t want to compromise breastfeeding. I had worked too hard for too long to get her feeding again (we’re talking like 5 months here), to have it go down the drain because of a bottle.
5 months on - finding the perfect bottle for
I’m a researcher. I just love to have as many facts as I can and as many reviews as possible before committing to anything. It became even more compulsive once I’d found out I was pregnant, especially when it came to buying things I knew nothing about like cots, change tables, nappies, and breast pumps. I felt that if I could get just get enough information, maybe I’d be more confident in my next steps.
When it came to bottles, it felt like a whole new and confusing ball game.
There were different teat sizes, flow rates, and bottle shapes to consider. My head is spinning again just thinking about it. We went through a few different types of bottles on the recommendations of friends, and based on my research and facebook review searches. Eventually, after 5 months, I decided to try Minbie.
To be completely honest, the price was a barrier at first. I had already spent upwards of $200 on baby bottles and I didn’t want to buy another one that my child was going to reject. We had been trialing the bottles methodically and giving her a couple of weeks to adjust before moving on, but nothing was really helping. So, I decided that if Minbie worked it would be the best money I’d ever spent.
The other thing I was unsure about and a bit skeptical of, was Minbie’s claims that the teat was designed to support a baby’s natural breastfeeding motion. I’d seen a lot of bottles make the same claim but couldn’t really see any evidence myself that these claims were true.
When the bottle arrived, I looked at it a bit confused. The shape was different to anything I had tried before. Maybe this time would be different. That evening after her bedtime feed my husband prepared the bottle and started to give it to her.
Except. She didn’t take it.
My heart sunk down to my feet.
Still, I knew we had to be consistent and keep offering it to her so she would have an opportunity to adjust to it. It took her three more goes with the bottle before she actually started to suck on it. Each feed after that became more successful, and since that point, Minbie has been the only bottle we use. Having a bottle that has been reliable and supported breastfeeding as well has been like seeing a rainbow after it’s been raining for a really REALLY long time.
How do you keep calm and persist?
You might have guessed by now that dealing with a child who wasn’t gaining weight and refusing to be fed was doing numbers on my mental health. And you’d be right.
I dreaded each feed whether it was breast or bottle, but here are some things that I found helped.
- Making sure that we were all as calm as possible before starting a breastfeed or giving her a bottle - This is easier to say than to do when every feed feels like a battle. I would often put on music that I enjoyed listening to right before a feed and set up the space I was going to feed in so that I was as comfortable as possible. I found both these things really helped me stay more relaxed and calm.
- Practicing mindfulness - I practiced both mindfulness and grounding exercises. Mindfulness is basically about keeping your mind in the present and is a way better tool than being told “just don’t stress”. There are a bunch of great apps that you can download to guide you through this if you’re not sure where to start. I like:
- Get the help you need - If you don’t know how to ask for help personally, get your spouse to do the asking for you. That help could be someone coming over to do some household chores so you can focus on feeding, or expressing if that’s what the professionals have got you doing. If someone asks if they can bring you a meal, don’t say “no, I think we’ll be ok, thanks”. DO say “yes, thank you that would be great”. Having a child who is going through oral aversion is hard – try to remember to be kind to yourself.
- Get a support system around you - This may include your friends and family, but trained professionals are also important. Listen to the professionals the hospital or your GP puts you in contact with, but also advocate for you and your child. They can give you the tools you need but you know your child better than anyone else.
The Minbie website recommends that parents use Minbie teats from the first bottle feed if possible because they support and nurture a baby's developmentally natural breastfeeding technique. I wish I’d known about Minbie from the beginning so I could follow this advice because it really would have made such a difference to us. All those months of struggling with my daughter’s oral aversion might never have happened if only we’d used Minbie teats from the start.
If you’re reading this and are considering Minbie as one of a number of choices, do yourself a favor and go with Minbie first. It’ll save you so much time, money and possibly heartache in the long run.