It’s not unusual for a baby to test out his new teeth on his mother. Some will breastfeed for months or years without even a tiny nip, some may do it once or twice, while some babies are more persistent biters. He isn’t trying to hurt you – he isn’t yet able to understand that he is causing you pain.
Some mothers have even been advised by other people that “you’ll have to stop breastfeeding now he’s got teeth”, which is absolutely not the case. The World Health Organisation recommends two years or more of breastfeeding, so there’s no hurry to stop just because your baby has teeth; we do call them ‘milk teeth’, after all! (See https://laleche.org.uk/breastfeeding-beyond-a-year/ for more information)
However, the pain of being bitten, or the fear of being bitten again, can really get in the way of a comfortable breastfeeding relationship with your baby, so it’s important to find some ways of dealing with the biting so that you and your baby can continue to feed in comfort.
Why did she bite me?
It’s hard to know exactly why a baby bites for the first time, as she can’t tell us what’s going on, but there are a number of situations where mothers often notice biting.
- Baby is teething
Sometimes a baby who is cutting a new tooth will bite on anything he can get hold of to ease the pain in his jaws and gums, and unfortunately that includes his mother’s breast or nipple. Most mothers notice that biting is most likely while the tooth is on its way through, rather than after it has erupted through the gum, though a brand new tooth can be very sharp so may leave a scratch even if your baby doesn’t clamp down with it. Read our post on teething.
- Baby has a cold or a blocked up nose
When your baby has a stuffy nose, it can be really hard for her to get an effective latch on the breast and breathe comfortably while feeding. In her attempts to latch on, or in frustration at not being able to latch, she may bite down.
- Baby wants mother’s attention
When you have a young baby, breastfeeding can be a rare opportunity to turn your attention to something else, like texting a friend, reading a book or shopping on the internet. A tiny baby doesn’t seem to notice much if your attention is elsewhere (though she enjoys it a lot when you look at her and talk to her), but a baby of a few months or older may discover that a quick bite is a very effective way of getting your attention away from your phone or book: suddenly you’re looking at her and talking to her, even if you do have an angry expression on your face!
- Baby is distracted while feeding
You may be feeding your baby in a noisy environment, possibly with an older sibling doing something interesting in the background. For the first few months, a baby at the breast seems oblivious to everything else, but as he gets older he starts to take an interest in what’s going on around him as he feeds. He may decide to turn and look at whatever has caught his attention, but may keep tight hold of your nipple while he does so. Ouch!
- Baby is experimenting with cause and effect
As soon has your baby is able to control her arms and legs, you will notice her trying to reach for objects and interact with the world; an older child will spend what seems like hours building a tower and knocking it down, or banging two objects together to hear the sound they make. Life is just one big experiment, and this is how babies and children learn about the world they live in. Unfortunately for you, this includes using his mouth and teeth to find out about the taste and texture of objects, including your breast; and if you yelp or jump, your baby will probably want to know whether you will react in the same interesting way if he does the same thing again. And again, and again…
- Milk flow has slowed down
When your baby first latches on to your breast, the milk usually flows quite quickly. As the feed goes on, he has some to work a little harder to get the thicker, creamier milk from your breast. Sometimes a hungry baby might use all kinds of tricks to try and speed up the milk flowing, such as bobbing his head against your breast, wriggling, fiddling with the other breast, or, yes, biting.
- Baby is not in a sustainable position
A baby who feels like she isn’t being held securely while she’s feeding, or who is having to bend her neck to reach your breast, may try and grip your breast with her mouth to keep her in position. As your baby’s body grows longer, the positions that were comfortable for feeding a newborn might not work any more, although the change is so gradual that you might not notice until feeding becomes uncomfortable. Have a look at https://laleche.org.uk/comfortable-breastfeeding/.
- Baby has been using a bottle, dummy or sippy cup
If your baby has any drinks from a bottle or a cup with a spout, or if he uses a dummy, he may have discovered the pleasure of biting the teat or spout, either to deal with teething pain or just to see what it feels like. It can be hard for him to understand that it’s fine for him to bite his bottle or cup, but not to bite your breast when he’s feeding.
- Baby is premature or has low muscle tone
Most of this advice is focused on a baby who has been feeding well but starts biting at a few months of age. However, a baby who is premature or who is born with overactive muscle tone (hypertonia) may reflexively “clamp down” with his jaws whenever anything touches the inside of his mouth. If this is the case for your baby, try waiting for him to open his mouth wide and extend his tongue before you latch him on, so that your breast touches his tongue rather than his lower gums. You can ask for medical advice from your healthcare professional, and breastfeeding support and information from La Leche League.
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When a baby bites, a mother’s automatic reaction is often to shout, and to pull the baby off the breast. This is understandable when you are startled by the pain of an unexpected bite, but it’s not the most effective way of responding. A loud or sudden yell can frighten some babies enough to put them off breastfeeding entirely, and pulling the baby off the breast while his jaw is still clamped onto it can be more painful than the original bite.
If your baby bites, respond immediately and firmly. Say “no!” or say her name sharply. If she hasn’t already let go, although you might feel the urge to push her away, instead try pulling her closer to you. As your breast covers her nose she will automatically open her mouth to be able to breathe. If this doesn’t work, you can try slipping your finger between her jaws to open her mouth.
Try offering her another chance to latch on properly and feed, if she seems to want more milk. If she has bitten before, or if you feel angry with her for biting you, it may be best to put her down entirely, take a break if you need one, then offer her more milk when she asks for it and when you feel ready. If you think she is getting frustrated by a slow milk flow, try offering the other breast. You could also try offering an alternative, such as a teething ring or a cup of water.
How can I stop it from happening?
At the beginning of a feed, make sure you and your baby are in a comfortable position for feeding and that he can reach your breast comfortably. Encourage him to open his mouth wide and make sure that he latches on correctly (see https://laleche.org.uk/positioning-attachment/).
When your baby is latched on properly and feeding well, make sure he gets plenty of loving attention: make eye contact, stroke his hair, hold his hand. When it’s possible, feeding in a quiet environment might help him to stay focused on feeding. Although this isn’t always possible, try to minimise distractions as much as possible. Many mothers find their babies are less likely to bite when they are sleepy.
When your baby is latched on and feeding effectively, his tongue should be between his lower teeth and your breast. This means he cannot bite while he is feeding without biting his own tongue. If your baby has been biting, pay attention to him while he feeds. You may notice that he doesn’t seem to be actively feeding any more, or you may feel him moving his tongue out of the way, unlatching from your breast or shifting the position of his head. These are warning signs that he may bite, so if you notice this, you might like to unlatch him by slipping your finger into the corner of his mouth and gently removing him from the breast. If he wants more milk you can allow him to feed again from the same breast or the other side, paying close attention to getting a good position and latch.
If you think your baby is biting because of teething pain, try allowing him to chew on teething toys, or if he is eating solids try freezing a peeled banana, or using plain unsweetened yogurt to make ice lollies. Your baby may enjoy chewing a damp flannel that has been kept in the fridge, or he may let you massage his gums with your finger to ease the pain. Be careful about using ice, or any teething medication that has a numbing effect, immediately before breastfeeding, as it could make it hard for your baby to latch on properly. Continuing to breastfeed while your baby is teething can really help him to manage the pain, as feeding can be very soothing for him.
If you think your baby might be getting frustrated by a low milk supply, see https://laleche.org.uk/my-baby-needs-more-milk/ It is common to go through a brief spell where your baby feeds more than usual; breastfeeding works by supply and demand, so allowing your baby to feed more often will encourage your body to produce more milk to meet his changing needs.
If your nipple or breast is sore because you have been bitten, you could try applying some lanolin or expressed breast milk to the sore area. See https://laleche.org.uk/nipple-pain/ for more ideas.
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You may find our post on Teething useful.
Written by Emma Taylor for LLLGB, 2017.