Conflicted Feeding Behaviour

Most babies will at times display what I call ‘conflicted’ feeding behavior. ‘Conflicted’ is a state of emotional confusion. In the case of conflicted feeding behavior, Baby gives the appearance that he’s swinging between wanting to eat and not wanting to.

What conflicted behavior looks like

Baby willingly accepts the nipple into his mouth, takes a few sucks and suddenly sharply turns his head away or pushes the bottle away in a tense or upset manner. Within seconds he turns back, faces the bottle, indicates he wants it, latches on, takes a few more sucks before turning away or pushing the bottle away once again. He repeats this behavior over and over again until completing the feed or refusing to continue feeding.

Depending on the cause, some babies will display conflicted feeding behavior only occasionally but others do so repeatedly.

Reasons for conflicted behavior


A behavioral feeding aversion, which typically develops in response to Baby being repeatedly pressured to feed against his will, is the most common cause of conflicted behavior.

Baby is conflicted because he has learned that the bottle will satisfy his hunger. He’s hungry and so he wants the bottle. However, as a result of being repeatedly pressured to feed in the past, he has also learned to expect to be pressured again. He cautiously accepts the nipple, but after only a few sucks he breaks away in an attempt to avoid the stress associated with being pressured. After pulling away he realizes he’s still hungry and has another tentative go at feeding. But he’s still anticipating that he’s going to be pressured and so breaks away again and repeats this behavior until he’s had only enough to relieve the gnawing pangs of hunger in his tummy, but not enough to feel completely satisfied. If due to a behavioral feeding aversion, Baby will initially display conflicted behavior at some feeds, and later at all feeds taken while awake, but not display conflicted behavior when feeding in a drowsy or sleepy state.

As explained in my book, Your Baby’s Bottle-feeding Aversion, if the parent returns the bottle, again and again, baby’s conflicted behavior is reinforced. Over time it becomes a conditioned response to feeding. Baby learns “This is what I do when eating” and the behavior continues long after baby is no longer pressured to eat.


Most babies will display conflicted feeding behavior when tired. When tired baby’s energy levels are depleted and his frustration tolerance is low. Hunger further adds to his frustration. He’s conflicted between wanting to sleep and wanting to eat. He struggles to eat because of fatigue but equally, he struggles to sleep because of unsatisfied hunger.

Resolving any underlying sleeping problem that baby might have will be the most effective way to minimize incidences where hunger and tiredness and collide.


A hungry baby will appear to be conflicted if the act of feeding causes discomfort or pain. He’s hungry and so he wants to eat, but swallowing causes him pain and so he pulls away. Conditions such as mouth ulcers, ear infections, acid reflux, and digestive disorders can cause pain while feeding. However, these conditions will also cause pain at other times.

If pain is the cause, it will affect Baby’s feeding behavior irrespective of whether he’s feeding while awake or asleep. He will show signs of distress at random times separate from feeding, and he will have trouble sleeping. If your baby calms quickly once the feed has ended, or if he feeds well in a sleepy state, pain is probably not the cause of his conflicted feeding behavior.

What’s NOT conflicted behavior

The most defining feature of conflicted behavior is that baby is tense and/or upset. He may or may not be crying as he turns away or pushes the bottle away. There are other reasons for babies to display disjointed feeding behavior which appears similar to conflicted behavior, such as…


When pausing, Baby is calm and composed at the time he stops sucking. He might gently turn his head while keeping the nipple in his mouth or at his lips. Or he might push it away while holding the bottle. He might look at you and smile, and then return to feeding.

Don’t try to rush him by jiggling the bottle. Allow him to pause and return to feeding when he’s ready. If he doesn’t return to feeding, go for a break or end the feed.


From around 4 months of age onwards, babies become very distractible daytime during feeds; some more so than others.

Baby turns away while feeding because something more interesting has captured his attention. He’s alert and fidgety, but not tense or upset. He may not return to feeding until you have gained his attention and offered the bottle again. But he could turn away again if still distracted.

To gain his attention to return to feeding, I recommend you speak to him and offer the bottle once again or stroke his lips with the end of the nipple.


Some babies will pull the bottle in and out of their mouth with their hands; hold it while looking at it; take it back into their mouth; take a few more sucks or roll their tongue around the nipple or chew on it; then and pull it out again, and repeat over and over. When playing, Baby is relaxed and enjoying the experience.

Babies often do this when first learning to hold and control the bottle. It’s fascinating and stimulating to practice this newfound skill. In a few days to a week before the novelty wears off and he stops doing this while feeding

Allow baby to continue while he continues feeding. However, if he’s no longer sucking, I recommend you give him a minute or two to see if he will start again, and if not remove the bottle, go for a break or end the feed, and provide something else for baby to play with.


Equipment problems can cause a baby to repeatedly break away from the bottle giving the appearance of conflicted behavior. If the bottle is not venting correctly, this can cause a vacuum to build within the bottle. Baby may have learned that breaking away from the nipple makes it’s easier to suck. Releasing suction allows air to enter into the bottle, neutralizing the pressure within, and allowing the milk to flow more easily.

In the case of a venting problem, you would see bubbles flowing into the bottle as your baby releases suction. Correct venting problems by loosening the nipple ring in the case of a non-vented bottle system. Or check that you’re assembling a vented bottle system (also called anti-vacuum or anti-colic nipples or bottle system) as per the manufacturers’ instructions. If all else fails, try a new, vented bottle system.

Written by Rowena Bennett, RN, RM, MHN, CHN, IBCLC

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