How to get your baby to take a bottle

Here are some tips for introducing your baby to the bottle – and what to do if your baby flat-out refuses to drink from it.

A baby being held by a woman and drinking from a bottle
Photo credit: / DragonImages

You may be planning to give your breastfed baby bottles because you're pumping breast milk, supplementing with formula, or switching to formula feeding. The transition can be tricky, but there are ways to make it easier. Here's what you need to know to successfully introduce a bottle to your breastfed baby.

When to introduce the bottle to your breastfed baby

If you're breastfeeding, most experts suggest waiting until your baby is 3 to 4 weeks old and breastfeeding is well established before introducing a bottle. In addition to helping launch your milk supply, waiting a few weeks helps reduce the risk of nipple confusion, or a preference for bottles over the breast.

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Exactly when to first introduce the bottle varies depending on whether you're bottle feeding because you'll be separated from your baby, or because you need to add formula to your routine.

If you're returning to work after maternity leave, start bottle-feeding several weeks before you go back. That way, you'll have plenty of time for them to adjust to the bottle.

If you're pumping breast milk, you'll want to keep up your milk supply by pumping every time your baby has a bottle. If you can, use a double electric breast pump: It's the most efficient way to express milk and stimulate milk production. (These are usually free through insurance.)

If breastfeeding isn't going according to plan for you and you're thinking about supplementing your baby's diet with formula or switching to exclusively formula feeding, try talking with a lactation consultant before making any big changes. A lactation consultant can assess why you're having trouble breastfeeding and offer tricks to address challenges.

But there's no need to feel guilty if you make the switch to formula: Healthy and happy babies can be formula-fed or breastfed. Focus on nourishing your baby and giving them the love, attention, and cuddles they need to thrive.

How to bottle feed a baby

Sucking milk from a bottle requires different mouth and tongue movements than breastfeeding, so it may take your baby a little time to get used to the change. Try these tips for a smooth transition.

Offer a bottle in place of a regular feeding. Choose a time that your baby tends to not be too fussy at mealtime – say, in the morning. The amount of formula or breast milk you'll need to give at each feeding varies depending on your baby's age and weight. Our articles on how much formula and breast milk babies need break it down for you, and you can always ask your pediatrician for a recommendation if you're not sure.

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Or, offer the bottle after a regular feeding. If you're especially anxious about offering the bottle, or if your baby balked at the bottle in place of the breast on your first attempt, you may want to get them used to the nipple by offering the bottle an hour or two after they're already fed. That way your baby won't be frenzied for food and may be more open to experimenting with a new food source. Start with a small amount of breast milk – about 1/2 ounce.

Let someone else feed them the first bottle. If you try to give your baby their first bottle, they may wonder why they're not getting your breast. They may be less confused if someone else makes the introduction. Ask your partner, a grandparent, a childcare provider, or a friend to help. Choose a spot other than where you regularly breastfeed.

Make sure the bottle is the right temperature. Breastfed babies can be particular about the warmth of their milk; many prefer milk that's the temperature of your body or a bath (about 98 degrees Fahrenheit). You can soak the bottle in a bowl of hot water or use a bottle warmer to bring it up to temperature.

Stay away. A baby can smell their mother, even from a distance, so they may know that you (and your breasts) are nearby. If your baby refuses a bottle with you nearby, try going to a different room during feedings.

Don't force it. The first time you introduce the bottle, don't force the nipple into your baby's mouth. Try tickling your baby's upper lip and nose with the nipple and then letting your baby "latch" onto the nipple as they would with your breast. If your baby seems frustrated or hasn't eaten anything after 10 minutes, stop and try again the next day.

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Try paced (or responsive, or cue-based) feeding. This method slows down the flow of milk to mimic breastfeeding and reduce the chances that your baby will drink too much. Use a slow-flow nipple, keep the bottle horizontal, pause every 20 to 30 seconds during feedings, and switch sides as you would when breastfeeding. Stop feeding your baby when they show signs of being full, which include not sucking anymore and turning away from the bottle. Research suggests a responsive feeding style encourages healthy eating habits that last well beyond the bottle.

Bond with your baby. Talk to your baby and look into their eyes as you bottle-feed to bond and help them feel secure. You can even take off your shirt for skin-to-skin contact, which helps babies to relax while stimulating digestion and interest in feeding, among other benefits.

Be patient. It may take a while for your baby to accept the bottle.

Be consistent. Babies love routines, so aim to give the bottle the same time every day.

What to do if your baby won't take a bottle

Some babies take to the bottle without much fuss, but others struggle quite a bit with the transition.

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Make sure you have lots of time and take it slow during this process. If your baby starts crying and pushes the bottle away, back off, comfort them, and then try again. If you've tried offering the bottle several times and your baby seems frustrated, or if they refuse to eat for 10 minutes, let it go for now. (Wait at least five minutes before breastfeeding after an unsuccessful bottle-feeding – that way they won't associate refusing the bottle with immediate gratification.)

Offer the bottle again in an hour or two, when your baby is alert and receptive but not very hungry.

If your baby is having a hard time, try these techniques:

  • Test a few different nipples. Babies can be very particular about bottle nipples. If you've tried the bottle a couple of times and your baby still refuses to eat, test out a few other options. Your baby may prefer a wide-based nipple, which more closely simulates the breast. Or your baby may accept a nipple that's similar to the pacifier they use (if you use one), so try giving them a nipple that's the same shape or made out of the same material as the pacifier.
  • Change the temperature of the nipple. If your baby is teething, they may prefer a nipple that's been chilled in the fridge. Otherwise, try warming the nipple under running water.
  • Introduce breast milk outside of the bottle. Put a few drops of breast milk on your baby's lips or the nipple before feeding them from a bottle, to give them a preview of what's to come. When your baby tastes it, they may start sucking to get more.
  • Let your baby play with the nipple so they can get familiar with it. If your baby just chews on it at first, don't worry. They may actually start sucking on it soon.
  • Hold them in a different position during the feeding. Put your baby in an infant or car seat so they're semi-upright, and then feed them the bottle while you're facing each other. Or try feeding them on your lap with their back to your chest. Once your baby is used to taking a bottle, you can hold them in a more standard feeding position.
  • Move around. Try walking or lightly bouncing your baby. Gentle, rhythmic movement may encourage them to take the bottle.
  • Try different temperatures. Your baby might prefer milk that's slightly warmer or colder. Experiment with different temperatures to see what they prefer.
  • Check the taste. Expressed breast milk sometimes has a soapy taste, so you may want to try a drop.
  • Offer the bottle at other times of day. If your baby won't take the bottle during the day, offer it during a nighttime feeding or vice versa.

If your baby is still refusing the bottle

For most babies, bottle refusal is a short-lived developmental step. That's why it's best to give everyone time to transition by introducing the bottle well before you have to go back to work or otherwise be separated from your baby.

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If your baby continues to refuse the bottle, keep trying: It can be frustrating, but your baby may eventually accept it. Until they do, you may have to make serious adjustments to your life. Some working moms have had to extend their maternity leave, change jobs, work from home with a nanny or sitter, or visit their child's daycare every two to three hours to breastfeed their bottle-refusing baby. 

If you've tried everything, don't blame yourself if your baby still won't bottle-feed. Some babies never take to the bottle – but talk to your child's doctor to rule out a medical reason.

Some babies can learn to drink from an open cup or a sippy cup instead of a bottle. Make sure your baby can hold their head up on their own before trying (usually around 4 to 6 months), though, to reduce the risk of choking. Here's how to start using a sippy cup:

  • Support your baby's head and shoulders with your arm and sit them upright in your lap.
  • Place the cup on your baby's lower lip and tilt it until the milk or formula is close to their lips.
  • Wait until your baby laps up the milk with their tongue, which may take a few minutes. Don't pour the milk straight into your baby's mouth.
  • Continue to offer the milk until your baby turns away their head or offers other cues that they're finished.
  • You may want to try this method first with another adult for practice. Once you're ready to test it out on your baby, be prepared with a bib and burp cloth nearby to wipe up spills.
Follow your baby's amazing development

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Colleen de Bellefonds
Colleen de Bellefonds is a freelance health and lifestyle journalist. She's raising her toddler daughter and newborn son with her French husband in Paris.