A common concern parents have with breastfeeding is biting. If you haven’t been bit, know that not all babies end up biting. If you have been bit, the first step is often to determine if the baby is biting out of pain from teething (or other pain) or if the baby is biting because of milk ejection or flow preference. Parents usually know the answer, once they have the right questions asked. Often, looking at the breastfeeding session and the timing of when baby is biting can lead to helpful clues in figuring out why a baby is biting. There may be other reasons but I will touch on the most common to come up and give some helpful links for further reading.
If the baby shows signs of teething such as drooling, chewing on their hands when well nourished, sore gums and teeth… then I offer these basic teething tips: It is not true that you have to stop nursing when your baby gets teeth. Some babies are born with teeth, some get them at 3 or 4 or 6 or 10 months. If you believe baby is in pain from teething and you are bit, using something for baby to chew on like a cool washcloth before nursing can be helpful. Try to pull baby into you rather than pulling away if they bite. This is a challenge because we can act on impulse to pull them off quickly but it actually causes more damage to you. Pulling in quickly will trigger baby to open their mouth because their nose will be close to your chest. Some babies are easily startled if you yell, while others think this is the greatest new game ever…so try to convey to baby displeasure in as calm a manner as you can. Babies hear us and listen to our tone so when they do nurse without biting praise them and talk to them about how happy you are they are nursing well. Some babies start to nurse a bit differently when they get teeth. If this is the case for you, focus on latch and positions that are comfortable. If baby is teething on the bottom, the tongue should cover the teeth.
Here are some great resources specifically on biting:
Some babies bite down to signal that they are done with a feeding or as they drift off to sleep. If this is the case for you, timing is important and so is your paying attention, especially as you feel suckling slow. A often clamped down at the end of a feeding as she fell asleep… rather than pulling her in or making a scene I simply used my finger to slip in near the jaw to unlatch. She started teething at 4 months and our breastfeeding journey was far from over at this point. The first time she bit me, I gently put her on a blanket next to me and said “Ouch – hurts Mama”. She fussed a minute and we resumed nursing. Within a week, she never bit me again and she nursed well into 2. With S, I yelped and he just loved that reaction. I still remember those happy eyes looking at me with glee at his new “cause and effect” game. Of course, he didn’t understand it hurt me and I really had to work on staying calm and pulling him in close so that he didn’t continue with his new game. There were times I had to really pay attention and keep a conversation and eye contact going for him. He was a “get down to business” nurser his entire first year so when he was done he let me know!
Another reason babies often bite has to do with artificial nipples being introduced or utilized often. When I hear that a baby bites early in the nursing session or all throughout, I often ask if baby is also being bottle fed or if baby is being given a pacifier often. If baby is having a bottle or using a pacifier, they can chew on the nipple all they want without causing pain…young babies do not know how to generalize or specify. Focus on positioning while breastfeeding so that you are not in pain. You may even need to take a babymoon with your baby to get them back on track with breastfeeding…take the phone off the hook, put a sign on the door and have a PJ day nursing as often as you both wish. Get back to basics of nursing for comfort. I won’t go into the logistics of bottle-feeding because there are already super resources on bottles and pacifiers out there but I will say that some moms find it better to bottle-feed in a completely different position than breastfeeding, while others find they need to make bottle-feeding more like breastfeeding for breastfeeding to work. You can find what works for you.
Occasionally baby is biting to signal a supply or letdown challenge. This can be from low or high supply. First make sure your baby is getting enough – remember output means input.
Many moms who try to schedule babies based on clocks rather than instinctual cues from baby and their own body and end up with both supply issues and biting issues. Baby will often bite to get the milk ejection or let-down going for them. They may bite and pound at your chest, especially if they are hungry and their feeding was held off. Baby may bite at the breast to try to stimulate a new let down or to stop a fast let down. This is where we must play detective a bit and look at the other signals the baby is giving. Just as you may sometimes be really hungry, thirsty or just want a snack…the same holds true for your child. If you have been using bottles often or have been holding off feedings with pacifiers, make sure you are pumping around the time bottles are given and that you are nursing your baby often when you are together. If you notice baby biting because your flow is very quick and it is overwhelming to keep up with nursing you may have a fast milk ejection or oversupply. We have several let-downs per feeding so the good news is that each one may be a little less powerful as the feeding goes on. It is helpful to use laid-back breastfeeding, to lean back while nursing in a chair or to even side-lay if you are comfortable with that. You can try to put your feet up on a stool or cross one leg over so that you can lean back a bit while nursing while out and about.
Please remember that just because your child is biting now, it has nothing to do with a behavior issue or future biting. Never try to bite your child back! This is a normal part of development and once you both get past it, you can nurse as long as you like, including with a full set of teeth for both health and comfort. Nursing your baby will help comfort them through teething and keep you both close.