Care and Feeding

My Daughter Refuses to Eat When I’m Not Around

She only wants to breastfeed.

A baby wailing at the sight of a bottle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by OJO Images/iStock/Getty Images Plus and ChristinLola/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 6 months old. Six weeks from now I’m scheduled to go away for three days to attend an important yearly conference on the other side of the country. Until recently, this seemed very doable. But not anymore.

The problem is that when I’m not around, the baby refuses to eat. She took a bottle until she was 4 months old, then suddenly started refusing it and is now exclusively breastfed. If I try to give her a bottle, she just chews on it, smiles, but won’t drink. When my husband tries, she screams.

I have repeatedly discussed this with my husband, and each time we’ll come up with strategies to reintroduce the bottle or move her onto other foods, but he has yet to follow through with any of them. There’s always some excuse about why he can’t try to give her a bottle or strained peas tonight.

Now I’m left wondering if I should cancel my trip or just go ahead and leave for three days and let the two of them work it out. I keep telling myself she won’t starve (right?) and that there will probably be a lot of tears but they’ll both survive ( … right?), but then I read more about how quickly babies get dehydrated and start to worry again.

—Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

Dear SISoSIG,

I promise I’ll answer your question, but first I need to tell you: I don’t think this problem is really about your baby’s bottle strike.

Listen, I totally understand both your frustration with your husband—who hasn’t followed through on what the two of you have decided he should do when you’re not around—and your anxiety about being away from your daughter (I practically had a nervous breakdown the first time I left mine overnight). And if you’ve been exclusively breastfeeding for the past two months, then I’m guessing you’ve been with her for many hours each day—which cranks up the volume on both your frustration and your anxiety. But you don’t seem to be dealing head-on with either of these: You’re focusing all of your attention on the question of food. This makes me wonder if your daughter is responding to your anxiety with her own reflexive, baby-style anxiety—if, indeed, even as you allow issues around her eating (or starving) to serve as a proxy for your uneasiness about being away from her and your frustration with your husband, she is also turning eating/not eating into a metaphor.

Are babies smart enough to do this? They sure are. And so are husbands, even when it seems like they are being as stupid as they possibly can be. Your husband’s being so laid-back about feeding her when you’re not there to do it yourself may be his way of saying, “Chill out. You’re making too big a deal of this.” (If he’s not being laid-back but is in fact being deliberately provocative, that’s a whole ’nother problem.)

I’m not suggesting that this is a productive way for him to communicate this to you, only that all three of you may be making use of the same handy all-purpose stand-in for what’s really vexing every one of you: the primacy of your relationship with your daughter.

I can’t tell from your letter if you want to go to this conference or just feel you should—or if you have no choice (that is, if going is crucial to your work; if deciding not to go would be tantamount to quitting, which you cannot or don’t want to do). And I don’t have a simple solution to either the problem of your husband’s being kind of a jerk right now or your separation anxiety. The former is something you are going to have to directly address with him; the latter is going to wax and wane for years to come, and you might as well start finding strategies now for coping with it. I can tell you for sure that allowing yourself to acknowledge what’s really troubling you will go a long way toward helping you manage it.

Now the good news: I do have some simple solutions for the simpler problem you are acknowledging. Your 6-month-old absolutely can start eating solid foods, and if your husband isn’t interested in taking this on when you’re not at home, well, never mind him, then—do it yourself. You have six weeks, which is plenty of time to introduce new foods (one at a time!), starting with rice cereal mixed with expressed breast milk. Pureed foods ordinarily come next, but your daughter might also enjoy food she can hold in her hand—a banana, say, or an avocado (with the pit removed, obviously). Breast milk will continue to be her main source of nutrients (yes, and hydration) until she’s a year old, but getting her started now on other interesting foods will help a lot when you’re not there to nurse her.

I also want to remind you that things change on a dime when it comes to babies (as you’ve already learned, when she suddenly lost interest in that bottle—and she may just as suddenly decide that taking a bottle from Dad is OK after all, so I hope he’ll keep trying). But as the mother of a once-upon-a-time 4-month-old who not only wouldn’t take a bottle but also went on a nursing strike, I have a couple of pro tips for you.

First: Give her a sippy cup full of expressed breast milk and sit her in a highchair. Let her learn to use it. She’ll spill more than she drinks at first, so just be patient as you help her figure it out. Second (and, honestly, one of my all-time-favorite baby hacks): Fill popsicle molds with expressed milk. Keep a freezer full of them. On the many days my daughter wouldn’t take milk any other way, she happily sat in her highchair licking and gnawing on a milk popsicle. Often with a banana or a peeled and pitted plum in her other hand.

As to the question you closed with—whether you should stay or go: If you want to or have to go, then go. Your baby will survive the time away from you. And so will you.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an 11-month-old human baby and a 10-year-old cat. The baby goes down easily and sleeps through the night in her crib. Our problem is the morning. Our cat will cry for food starting around 6 a.m., sometimes so loudly that he wakes up the baby. The cat never did this before we had the baby. What do we do to stop the cat from crying until a more reasonable hour, like 7? We are about ready to put him up for adoption, even though he is otherwise lovely: gentle with the baby, very snuggly, a nice creature.

—The Cat Is My Alarm Clock

Dear TCIMAC,

Are you seriously going to put up for adoption a lovely, gentle, near-elderly cat that has been part of your family for a decade because he wants to be fed too early?

Get out of bed as soon as he lets out his first cry, feed the poor cat—who is almost certainly feeling displaced and out of sorts with the addition of a baby to the household—and go back to sleep until the baby wakes up. And be wildly grateful that your baby goes down easily, sleeps all night, and sleeps past 6.

If what I’ve suggested isn’t possible (because you’re sleeping through the cat’s continued, ever-louder yowling so that the baby wakes before you do—or your baby wakes up at the very instant of the cat’s first meow), then you need to learn to live with a 6 a.m. start time. If your concern is that the baby isn’t getting enough sleep—or that you and your husband aren’t—everybody should go to bed earlier.

In other words: put a little effort in, one way or another, to solve this problem. It’ll be good practice for raising your child, which requires a good deal of effort, ingenuity, and good intentions.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 10-month-old baby and a rescue dog, and ever since I had the baby I cannot stand the dog. Objectively I can see he’s a pretty normal rescue dog, but in my heart he’s a monster bent on my psychological destruction. Some details: We adopted this dog about a year after the Dog of My Life passed away, and I would be lying by omission if I didn’t mention that we ended up with him in part because he looked like that other dog. He is nothing like her, though. He is needy and has been super difficult to train (although we’ve had two professional trainers). He persists in attempting to run away at the sight of any open door, claws me any time I’m trying to put his leash on so we can go for a walk, and is so rough-and-tumble in his enthusiasm that we have basically partitioned our house into baby and dog areas. I think I first started resenting him during my (high-risk) pregnancy when he twice inadvertently caused me to take some pretty nasty falls.

I know that he would be very loved by the right person (you know, someone with no small kids, furniture, or shoes for him to destroy and who really has it in for squirrels). I don’t think I would ever have adopted him if I’d known that my husband and I were going to end up having a kid so soon after we got the dog. I feel terrible that I’m one of those people thinking about re-homing an animal after a baby, but I just don’t know how to get away from this seething rage I feel every time I see his furry body shedding on some freshly cleaned part of my house.

—Do I Really Have to Keep Him?

Dear DIRHtKH,

Well, you are one of those people. Unlike the previous letter writer, you haven’t had your pet for long, and you’ve already figured out that adopting him was a mistake. It would be wrong, not just for you but for him too, to keep a dog toward whom you feel seething rage. Find another home for this dog immediately. He deserves to be loved, as every creature does.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My imaginative 2½-year-old has taken on the identity of a minor character in one of the Maisy books. For the last week, she has insisted she is “Ella” who has flown to visit us from New York. She’s managed to keep this going both at home and day care.

As a fellow book lover, I appreciate the desire for immersion in a literary universe. As a parent, though? I am losing my mind.

This has coincided with the onset of other challenging behavior, all developmentally appropriate (more intense tantrums, boundary testing, and skipping naps, which exacerbates all of the above). Being Ella is offered up as an excuse, though, whenever she doesn’t want to do something, which is often. She says, “Why would Ella do that?” or “Ella doesn’t do that.”

I’ve tried playing along and kindly nudging Ella that it may be time for her to go back home, that it’s been a nice visit but her family must miss her. I say that I miss my daughter RealName and want her to come back. She just doubles down by saying her teddy bear is RealName now.

I thought she’d get tired of this and move on after a couple days, but Ella she remains. How much longer should I expect this to last? Is there something I can do to help her work through this (and get Ella on that flight back to New York)? Or is this creative play that I should try to enjoy and appreciate for being just that?

—I Don’t Want to Be Ella’s Mother

Dear IDWtBEM,

I’m sorry that you’re losing your mind, I really am.

But this is creative play that you should try to enjoy and appreciate for being just that.

Or don’t enjoy and appreciate it, but you ought to lay off your daughter, who is just working things out in one of the few ways a child this young has available to her. Your brilliant daughter has figured out a way to argue with you without (she thinks) directly engaging, which she has already learned will be unpleasant. She knows she can’t get away with telling you she doesn’t want to do something you’ve told her she must do. Stepping into her alter ego gives her a chance to assert herself.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting you have to give in to her. If you tell RealName it’s time to go to bed and she coyly replies that Ella doesn’t go to bed so early, feel free to tell her that when Ella is a guest in your house, she has to follow your rules. But take a moment, will you, to silently applaud her ingenuity. Ella is braver and tougher and more independent than RealName is (or could possibly be at her age)—but she’s the one who has created her. If you can find it in your heart to be proud of her and impressed by her—even as you remind her that Ella has to do as she is told, alas—perhaps your lost mind will return to you.

—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I am a 55-year-old father of three, and my eldest son just turned 18. He has a 3.9 GPA, is well-rounded, and has been accepted to numerous universities both here and internationally. The only problem is: He wants to disregard all of that and join the Army.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for our soldiers and our veterans, and I have absolutely no problem with the general concept of the armed forces. But I grew up under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the moment I turned 18 in 1981 I was shipped off to Angola to fight against “communist revolutionaries.” I have seen war, and it’s not pretty. My son doesn’t know about the dirty side of war, only the more glamorous “defending the valor of the country” aspect. And whenever I try to talk to him about it, he brushes it off by telling me it’s a different era now.

He’s been military-besotted since he was a little boy, but I never realized his childhood interest would develop into this. Am I doing damage by trying to discourage my son from his dream, or am I doing my duty as a protective father?