Whether they take breast milk or formula, many babies these days are fed by bottles for some or all of their feedings. At some point in their bottle-feeding journey, your baby might not want to take the bottle, and they may try to play with it instead. Although it seems to be common, it is still frustrating when you are trying to help your baby eat and they have other plans.
A younger baby who is accustomed to breastfeeding may reject the bottle despite being hungry because they prefer the breast. Older children may reject a bottle because they are not hungry, do not like the bottle or nipple itself, are teething, or are too tired to focus on eating. They may also be distracted or want to play with you instead.
Read on for a closer look into why your baby might play with their bottle when you want them to drink it.
The most common reasons a baby plays with a bottle instead of drinking it
While there doesn’t appear to be any official data on bottle refusal, one study found 20 to 30% of parents report feeding-related problems during a baby’s development, and anecdotes of babies refusing their bottle are found throughout the internet on parenting forums, videos, and blogs.
These posts, often from parents seeking advice, touch on babies of all ages and stages, as well as new and experienced caregivers.
Your baby may be playing with their bottle instead of drinking because of:
- Lack of hunger
- Preference for nursing
- New bottle or nipple
- Feeling tired
- Wanting to play
Lack of hunger
If your baby doesn’t feel hungry enough, they won’t want to eat. While this seems simple, it may confuse parents who are trying to stick to certain feeding times.
Some babies will take their bottles on schedule or have a loose “routine” while others are far less predictable. Especially in very young babies and preemies, feeding takes a lot of energy, and they may take only a little or refuse to feed at all if they aren’t hungry enough.
A baby who isn’t hungry might try to play instead, or they could chew the nipple, push it out of their mouth, turn their head away, or even knock down the bottle with their hands. Recent research recommends feeding based on baby’s cues, even for very premature infants, to make it easier on them, and you.
Preference for nursing
Nursing directly from the breast is different from drinking milk or formula from a bottle. During nursing, the milk may flow quickly at first, and later more slowly, and the baby can control the process and take breaks based on whether and how much they are sucking. With bottles, the flow rate of the milk depends on the nipple opening and shape, and the positioning of the baby, caregiver, and bottle.
Breastfed babies may not like the feel of an artificial nipple, the flow may be too fast or too slow compared to the breast, or they just prefer the act of feeding at the breast.
One suggestion for breastfed babies to increase their success with a bottle is to use specific feeding techniques, which involve positioning the baby upright and holding the bottle horizontal, using the slowest flow nipple, and following the baby’s cues for pacing and breaks to mimic what they might do when nursing.
It can also help to have a caregiver other than their mom offer the bottle, as the baby might associate mom very strongly with nursing and refuse any bottles she offers.
New bottle or nipple
Feeding from a bottle is a skill, and babies will do best with what they practice the most.
Introducing a new type of bottle or nipple, or offering a different temperature than what is usually given can result in your baby refusing to drink. They might want to play with the bottle or nipple, exploring it to become more familiar with this new feeding device you’ve presented.
Older babies especially are becoming more alert and curious about their environment and may be more interested in the novelty than satisfying their hunger. Give them a chance to check it out before gently encouraging them to go back to feeding.
Whether it is noise, bright lights, toys, or a sibling playing nearby, distractions can make it difficult for your baby to focus on feeding. As babies emerge from the “fourth trimester” or newborn stage around 3 to 4 months old, they are more aware of what goes on around them, and they can see far more clearly.
Being able to focus better and follow moving objects lets your baby explore their surroundings, but also opens the door to more distraction from the task at hand – drinking the bottle. Your baby might turn their head to find the source of noise or movement, smile and wriggle in response to their siblings’ antics, or get overstimulated by a brightly-lit room.
Feeding your baby in a quiet space with dimmed lights may help.
Of all the troubles that babies have, teething seems to be blamed for so many things, from excessive drooling to night waking and increased fussiness. If you’ve ever had problems with your own teeth, you may remember not wanting to eat, and babies are no different.
Your baby may seem to play with the bottle nipple or chew it while trying to soothe their sore gums, even if you know they’re hungry.
Unfortunately, teething pains (and the trouble they cause) can come and go until your baby is through with the process, which can last until they are three years old. You may want to help ease any soreness or discomfort from teething before trying to start a feed, especially if you are aware of a new tooth on the way.
Sometimes you can tell a tired baby by their heavy eyes, slowed activity, and big yawns, but other times it can look more like crying, pushing their bottle away, and even increased activity since stress hormone levels can go up when a baby is overtired.
Some parents say their overtired babies and toddlers become “hyperactive” and this could lead to all sorts of antics when trying to feed them a bottle. Paying attention to your baby’s hunger and tiredness cues may help, although they can sometimes be subtle and easily missed if your baby becomes overtired quickly.
For younger babies, swaddling, offering a pacifier, and rocking them can help to calm them down enough to drink from the bottle.
Wanting to play
If your baby doesn’t want to take their bottle, it might just be that your baby wants to play instead of eating.
As many parents have observed, babies and young children will play with almost anything – including their bottles. They might blow raspberries at the nipple, stop drinking to smile at you, turn the bottle with their hands, smack or push it around, pull the bottle away from you, and even throw it.
If your baby truly is in the mood to play, you might need to help them get that energy out before offering the bottle again. Having a regular routine can also make transitions from playtime to feeding time easier for both of you.
So what can you do when your baby wants to play with their bottle instead of feeding?
Depending on the reason, you might want to make changes to the feeding environment or the bottle, or you may consider changes to the daily routine to encourage more focused feedings.
Ensuring your baby is just hungry enough to eat, following their cues, and letting them show you when they have had enough can help bottle feedings be a smoother and more enjoyable experience for all.