It can be difficult to continue nursing a breastfeeding baby who bites. I frequently talk about “table manners” with regard to breastfeeding and it is OK for babies to learn that biting the breast that feeds them is frowned upon. Understanding the reasons why babies bite can help us find solutions to so that the breastfeeding relationship continues in an enjoyable way for both mother and baby.
The most common reason for biting is generally teething. Even before the teeth are visible, they can move up and down in the gum ridge and this movement might be uncomfortable. The discomforts of teething may be present as early as a few months and can last throughout the duration of breastfeeding. Your baby may exhibit other signs of teething such as drooling (possibly accompanied by a rash from their saliva), is gnawing on his hands or other hard objects, has swollen gums, is acting fussy or irritable, having trouble sleeping, or might even have a low-grade fever, diarrhea, or diaper rash.
If you suspect that teething is the cause of your baby’s biting behavior, preventative efforts can be made to keep biting from happening.
Teething necklaces – While there is no scientific research to support the use of amber teething necklaces, many families report that amber teething necklaces have helped their babies fly through teething with nary a physical sign. It is commonly believed that amber helps reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. Most families who use amber teething necklaces indicate that they seem to work best with continuous use and can be worn as a necklace or bracelet on the ankle or wrist.
Gum massage – Gum massage can be provided using clean fingers to rub your baby’s gum line. When performed prior to beginning a nursing session, the pressure can provide enough comfort to help prevent your baby from biting while breastfeeding. Your baby can also use a teething toy for this purpose.
Cold therapy – Cold therapy works to soothe teething gums before a feeding. Some women report that giving their baby a cold, wet washcloth or breastmilk “popsicles” to chew on prior to a feed or minimizes biting in the teething infant. For older babies and toddlers who have already started complementary foods, cold apples or frozen bananas to chew on before nursing might reduce biting.
Some babies have turned biting mommy into a game or are biting for attention. For these babies, providing of loving, positive attention during the feed might help. Lots of eye contact or touching while nursing gives the baby the attention they’re seeking and also can help the mother recognize when a bite might happen before it happens. He might also be responding to outside stimulation in your environment, like startling noises or energy from older children, that distracts his mother and takes her attention away from him.
Watch for cues that a feeding is coming to a close: he might start losing interest in the feeding or falling asleep and is no longer be focusing on suckling. You might also notice that his jaw starts quivering, a sign of tension and possibly an impending bite. If baby falls asleep, remove him from the breast by placing your finger in his mouth so that he bites on your finger instead of your breast.
If your baby is not hungry or interested in feeding he may bite to let you know he’s not wanting to nurse at that time. End the feeding and try again later.
When a mother’s milk flow dwindles, whether due to mismanagement of the breastfeeding relationship, illness, introducing solids too early, etc., a baby might bite to stimulate flow. Babies sometimes will try to stimulate let downs with biting, as well. The remedy for these issues is to frequently offer the breast in attempt to increase milk supply or contact your lactation consultant.
Whatever the reason you identify for your baby’s biting behavior and regardless of their age, there are some basic techniques to prevent and discourage future biting behaviors.
Many times, a startled mother involuntarily responds to her baby with a yelp or “Ouch!” For some babies, seeing his mother in pain and being upset by her response is enough to prevent future episodes. Verbalize to your baby that biting hurts and end the nursing session, offering again after several minutes have passed.
Many mothers find that ending a nursing session after a biting episode works well with their baby. Putting the baby on the floor or away from her sends the message that biting brings negative consequences. Adding verbal reinforcement that biting hurts, maybe saying something like, “No bite,” or “Biting hurts mommy,” helps your baby understand the reason for the session ending.
Make sure to say, “Thank you,” when your baby releases your breast appropriately. Be loving and kind, using smiles and kissing to show your baby that kind gestures receive positive response. Positive reinforcement for your baby will convey a very powerful message.