After working out how this whole breastfeeding thing works, most breastfeeding dyads settle into a sweet, easy breastfeeding relationship. Mutually satisfying and safe, mom and baby usually find comfort in the breastfeeding journey they share. And then one day, SNAP! Or maybe CLAAAAAAAAAAAAAMP! Instead of the wood nymph, rainbow farting unicorns breastfeeding experience, you’ve got a surprisingly powerful yet small jaw with or without teeth gripping your nipple, a sick feeling in your stomach, and a barely stifled screech of pain.
A regular concern and related questions we see on The Leaky Boob Facebook page is dealing with biting. It’s scary, putting your breast into another person’s mouth and hoping they don’t decide to chomp down. Particularly when that person doesn’t understand why that would be a bad thing or even that it would cause you pain. In my own breastfeeding journey I have had plenty of biting babies. I’ve examined my breast with deep teeth marks, red and throbbing from clamped jaws, and had tears sting my eyes as I gasped for breath when my nursling has decided to go at my boob as if it was a steak. I’ve even had blood drawn and the skin broken. Yep, I’ve been bitten and yep, it hurts, and yep, I’ve lived to tell about it.
The truth is, bite happen. Er, make that bites happen.
With my very first nursling, 13 years ago, I acted on the advice to flick my baby on the cheek when she bit me. At first I couldn’t do it and just yelped and told Earth Baby no bite. That didn’t work. She bit me only a few more times but the last time I was frustrated and fed-up and went with what I had been told to do: flick her on the cheek and tell her no. Her face immediately reflected the confusion and betrayal she felt, up to that point I had never intentionally hurt her and she had no idea what she did to deserve such treatment. Neither did I. As she wailed and refused to nurse I knew that I should have trusted my instincts to not hurt my baby. She never nursed again, that traumatic experience led to a nursing strike that led to weaning at 10 months. My sensitive little girl just couldn’t trust me. I pumped for another two months in order to reach my goal of a year but Earth Baby never accepted my breast again.
So what’s a mom to do? Fearing a nursing relationship with a potential piranha could be enough to discourage anyone from breastfeeding. It’s no wonder that many women decide they are going to breastfeed only until the first time baby bites or teeth come in and then that’s it. All or nothing. Stop or be bit or worse, injure your own child to stop them from biting. It doesn’t have to be that way though. For starters, why borrow trouble? Not all babies bite and some that do don’t do so roughly so it’s possible that you’ll never even experience a piranha on the boob. Secondly, there are ways to handle biting should you have a nursling that wants to sink their teeth into something, namely, you. It doesn’t have to be the end, in fact, it can actually be the beginning of the give and take that all relationships eventually need to develop. Working through biting can strengthen your bond, give you confidence as a mother, and give you and your nursling a new dimension to your relationship. Like all hard times, it’s worth working through.
But how? How do you work through it? What do you do if you fear feeding your little one because of the possible nip or down right full on chomp? There may not be one simple strategy for everyone but asking other moms that have been there what worked for them is a great place to start. Seeking the advice of a professional lactation consultant is another. I did both and have compiled the suggestions and experiences here, browse through and see what you think might work for you.
It also helps to understand why a baby or toddler might bite in the first place. It is important to understand they are not biting to be mean or malicious, they don’t even understand that concept. In fact, they don’t understand that biting even hurts until we teach them. Unfortunately for mom, our natural response to hollar ouch may not teach baby that it hurts but rather that biting gets a funny reaction from mom. Others may be frightened by moms initial reaction and require comforting or even refuse the breast entirely for a time being afraid of another outburst. Controlling our response, admittedly difficult to do, and utilizing other strategies may be more effective and less traumatizing for both mom and baby. Remember, babies and toddlers don’t bite to be mean and if you can, identifying the reason they are biting can help you figure out how to respond.
Reasons a baby or toddler may bite while breastfeeding and tools to stop it
Teeth are beginning to move and cut through the gum. This hurts, the most painful time being before the teeth actually erupt. Babies figure out pretty quickly that counter pressure helps relieve some of that discomfort and so they chew fingers, teething rings, corners of a blanket, anything they can find. Including your boob. Offer teething options, try comfort measures before putting them to the breast, be sure it’s feeding they want and not chewing time they are looking for, and pay close attention to their behavior at the breast. Often, biting can be headed off before it even happens.
Bored and all done feeding. This happens at the end of the feeding. Being all done but not necessarily ready to move on, your baby or toddler may bite out of distraction and boredom. Since they aren’t requiring milk any more, a lazy latch replaces an effective and safe no-biting latch and bam, you get bit. Pay attention to changes of their jaw and tongue to stop the session before they bite. Most babies will have a change in their sucking patterns once they’re really done feeding. Slowing down, head shaking, jaw tension, looking around, falling asleep, etc. can all be signs that they’re actually done. Break latch and move on to cuddles and hopefully you’ll avoid being bitten.
Not opening wide enough or needing to adjust latch. In this case they are hungry, they want to nurse but as time progresses and changes, such as teeth, happen the latch needs to progress and change. If the latch isn’t wide enough a baby or toddler is likely to bite. This usually happens near the beginning of the feeding. Unlatching and readjusting their latch, showing them what you want them to do by modeling a wide open mouth with tongue forward, and reminding them gently before each feeding session can help with this. A different position that causes them to have to open wide to take in the nipple can also make this easier.
Physical limitations can cause biting. Tongue tie is one example on the baby’s part, over active milk ejection reflex is another on mom’s part. This is particularly true for younger babies biting or clenching with their jaw. Seeing an IBCLC is the most effective measure for helping solve these type of biting issues.
Along with boredom, distractions can lead to biting. Whether they are startled or just curious about what’s going on around them, biting can occur with distractions. In this case, helping them focus can go a long way in reducing biting, try a teething necklace or something else for them to hold and play with while at the breast.
Saying “hey, look at me!” Maybe you’re multitasking and they want your attention solely on them. Biting can be a way of getting your attention on them. This is probably just a phase, meeting their need for connection with you, make it a priority to look into their eyes, talk with them, caress their head, etc. Remember, they don’t do this to be mean or demanding, they do it because they legitimately need this time with you, you’re their world!
What I do now
I honestly can’t remember if Lolie, my 3rd baby bit me ever but I know The Storyteller (#2), Squiggle Bug (#4), and Smunchie (#5) all did. Never again did I flick my baby to teach them not to bite, I utilized other strategies using a combination of tools. Kathleen Huggins’ book The Nursing Mother’s Companion gave me some great tips on dealing with biting and when I find I need reminders I still reach for my trusty breastfeeding resource, I love and use Kathleen’s suggestions. Heading off biting when possible has been by far the most effective. If they did bite on the breast I try to break their latch by sliding my pinky into the corner of their mouth along side my nipple. If, for some reason, that doesn’t work or their grip is too strong for it to work, I pull my baby into my breast which will cause them to let go. I don’t care for that move personally, it just makes me a little uncomfortable to block their airways if even for just a second which is why I don’t try it first. However, it is effective and safe and my babies have never seemed to be frightened because of it. With my younger babies I just make eye contact and say “ouch, no bite please” and offer the breast again, keeping a careful eye out that they’re are indeed interested in continuing the feeding of if the bite because they were done anyway. Knowing that they have to change their latch to be able to bite and pull their tongue back, I pay attention for any subtle changes and break their latch before they have a chance to bite again. If they don’t seem to really be interested in continuing the session, we move on to other activities and wait for cues that they are ready to eat again later. For older babies I sit them up an say “ouch, no bite please” and place them on the floor near by, offering a toy for them to play with. If they still desire to breastfeed they will let me know and I’m willing to try again, reminding them to open wide (which I demonstrate) and saying “remember, no bite.” Again, paying close attention for any subtle shifts in their latch, I aim to remove them from the breast before they have a chance to bite. If there is a second attempt, I repeat telling them no bite and then tell them “all done nursing right now” and move on to our next activity. Depending on each child’s personality, I may have to repeat this 1-6 times but it rarely is a stage that lasts long. For me, resorting to tactics such as hair pulling, flicking, or biting back are simply not an option, I can’t intentionally inflict pain on my child, particularly when I know there are other effective options at my disposal. I never want my child to associate fear being hurt by me, particularly at the breast. I’m so grateful I found other methods and have been able to successfully end biting without the devastating results Earth Baby and I experienced.
All images used with permission and generously shared by the Leakies on The Leaky B@@b Facebook page.
What have your experience, positive or painful, been with biting and breastfeeding?