There is a lot of opinion about this, but precious little actual evidence. Many babies switch between breast and bottle seamlessly even from the early days, but you will meet mothers whose babies refused to go back to the breast after some bottles, and breastfed babies who refuse bottles entirely!  I often meet new parents who blame themselves that they have “confused” their little one. Sadly, sometimes parents refuse to feed their baby through a bottle even when baby desperately needs it.

Where does this leave new parents, who quite rightly want or need their baby to take a bottle sometimes?

First things first. If your baby is definitely in need of milk and cannot breastfeed please do not hesitate to bottle feed your baby!  The priorities are to feed your baby, protect your milk supply by expressing, and get some breastfeeding support.  If you really are worried about using a bottle in the early days, midwives can help you to express or use formula in a cup or in a supplemental nursing system (a milk container with a tube that can be taped to the breast or a finger to feed the baby as they suck).  Once your baby is taking a significant amount of milk, a bottle is usually the least stressful solution to use at home and is easier to keep clean.

How can I make bottle feeding more like breastfeeding?

You might have heard of “responsive” or “paced” bottle feeding.  Many babies love to be cuddled skin to skin or lightly dressed, with lots of eye contact and talking. They prefer to be sitting quite upright, rather than lying down, and you can vary which arm you hold baby in. When you see signs that baby is hungry you can tempt them to open their mouth by gently rubbing the bottle on their lips.  When they open up, encourage them to draw the bottle into their mouth rather than forcefully poking it in.  Many babies prefer milk warmed to body temperature, but it is not strictly necessary.

Hold the bottle with milk in the teat but just off horizontal, so that your baby has more control over the milk flow and can pause when they need to. If bottle fed babies get used to receiving milk super fast they can sometimes get frustrated by the slower pace of a breast feed. As a rough guide, a bottle feed should take 10-20 minutes. We never force a baby to accept or finish a bottle, even if it is hard-earned expressed milk!  For older babies, you might try to distract them long enough to put the bottle in.

If breastfeeding is going well, when should I try introducing a bottle?

As this is a very complex area, all we can suggest is try it gently and see. A common sense approach is to wait until your milk supply is established and baby is breastfeeding well, say four to six weeks old, before trying a bottle if you have no other need to do so.

Getting your baby used to a bottle before they are three months old can sometimes prevent bottle refusal in the older baby. You will probably need to continue offering a bottle at least every three to four days.  If you are planning to return to work and need your baby to take a bottle, it makes sense to practice before the big day!

Giving the first bottle

If you are trying to introduce a bottle to a breastfed baby, pick a time when your baby is alert and interested but not starving and frantic. Often this is when they are just waking up. It can help to have moral support, or someone other than mum giving the bottle, so that the whole experience can be relaxed and cozy.

For more information on which bottle (and formula) to choose, see other articles and videos on this site.  I have also written about what to do if your baby refuses a bottle.