OUCH! Preventing Biting while Breastfeeding your Baby

on February 09, 2014 in Biting, Breastfeeding

While not all babies bite, some do.  In fact, some mothers actually decide against breastfeeding out of fear of being bit or may end breastfeeding prematurely when their babies’ begin to get teeth!

Being bitten cannot only be painful but it then goes on to make a mother tense when she fears it could happen again. Some mothers may wonder if this is the baby wanting to be weaned, which is not the case.

Usually babies bite when their gums are tender from teething.  If your baby has bitten you, there are a few things you should know.  Most importantly, babies don’t do this intentionally and they certainly don’t understand that they are causing you pain.  Secondly, when babies are actively sucking and drinking milk, they cannot bite as their tongues cover their lower teeth. But with that being said, they can stop sucking, pull their tongue back and bite down.  Most babies do this at two different times; near the end of a feeding and when they are offered the breast but they are not really hungry.  Most of the time, biting is a temporary issue and babies can be taught not to bite in just a couple of days or less.

Both of my nursing babies bit me, so I get it about how painful this is.  My firstborn baby did not get teeth until rather late at 10 months of age, but despite her age, at one point she did it time after time.  I actually came to think that I might have to wean her!  For one entire weekend, Kate bit down during almost every nursing.  I naturally hollered out loud, but she simply laughed. She thought it was a fun game. I did not! I called my local La Leche League leader and while she was sympathetic, I really didn’t learn how to make her stop.  I started becoming afraid to let her nurse.  But she kept asking to nurse after she bit and my response was to pick her up and let her try again.  That was probably my biggest mistake!

Finally, what happened is that I got mad at her! Yes, I was actually angry with my sweet baby girl.  Nursing after nursing, she did it again and again.  Then, I became really upset!  I simply ended the nursing, placed her down on the floor next to the couch, and I walked away.  She began to cry.  Not so funny for her this time, I guess!  That was the last time she bit me.

Nine years later, my son was born.  A fat rolly polly little guy, he teethed much earlier, at around four months.  He weighed 20 pounds and the first time he bit down, I reacted as I had with Kate; a natural reaction of a loud “OW”!  I became very worried as to how could such a young baby figure out that this behavior while nursing was unacceptable.  But his reaction was much different than my daughter.  He became upset when I hollered out and he never bit me again.

So I have heard a lot of stories about babies who bite while nursing and this is what I know. When babies are teething, they get some pain relief by biting down on almost anything.  This is the reason that teethers have been used since the beginning of time!  The most common time that most babies seem to bite at the breast is after their bottom teeth are in and the top ones are about to come down.

I suggest that if you have been bitten by your baby, keep your finger ready to end the feed, keep the feedings short, don’t offer your breast when they baby doesn’t really seem to be hungry.  Instead of paying attention to the TV, talking on the phone or engaging in other activities, pay attention to your baby and stay vigilant during nursings so that you can tell when the baby is starting to lose interest and you can end the feeding.

And if you are ever bit, there are a few ways to react.  Biting hurts and there is no reason not to let your baby know by responding with an unpleasant natural noise, like “No” or “Ouch”!  Biting is unacceptable behavior and perhaps this is the first disciplining you will do as a mother.  But it is a lesson that needs to be taught!  A few babies may become quite upset at their mothers’ response to a very firm and loud voice. I have certainly heard that some babies become so distraught over their mothers’ loud sounds that they may even go on a temporary nursing strike.  But the goal is to teach your baby that biting is not allowed.  I think that the most important thing to do when being bit is to simply end the nursing session so that the baby learns that biting is not allowed while nursing.  If the baby bites down and does not let go, put your finger in between his gums to release the suction similar to what you may have done to end a feeding when the baby was a newborn.

I know of many mothers who are told to respond to biting by flicking their baby’s cheek or pulling their baby into the breast so that they cannot take a breath and so they let go.  Both ideas seem similar to me, hurting the baby back in some way.  Personally, I am not a fan of either of these tactics.  Babies are learning to trust in their first year and I don’t think that these responses are emotionally healthy for them when the person that they love and depend on the most in the world, hurts them in some way.

Some mothers may be given other suggestions.  These include offering the baby cold teethers or rags to bite on before nursings. More recently, beaded silicone teething necklaces are used for easing teething pains.  And the latest remedy for teething which has become very popular are Baltic “amber necklaces” which are that secrete an anti-inflammatory through the skin while worn by the baby.   The amber secretes Succinic acid, a natural pain reliever and a central nervous system calmer without any side effects.

Mothers may be given the go ahead to use baby Tylenol or ibuprofen for teething pain by their baby doctors.  Some mothers use these medications an hour or so before nursing to try and avoid being bitten, but these come with no guarantees.   While all of these may help a baby suffering with teething pains, they may not prevent infant biting during nursings.

I must also mention that occasionally a mother may be bitten which causes a wound on the nipple.  Nipple wounds and other human bites can easily become infected.  In the case of a painful wound, it may be necessary to temporarily express milk by using hand expression or pumping.  If a bite it not healing after a couple of days, the wound may contain bacteria.  When bacteria gets into a wound, the nipple may not heal quickly and it may be necessary to seek help from your doctor and be treated with an antibiotic.  Also, wounded nipples that are not healing and not being treated may lead to mastitis.  Mastitis comes with fever and flu-like symptoms and can lessen milk production on that breast which in some cases can become permanent.

So my final thoughts on biting include understanding when and why biting occurs and what are the best approaches to ending this behavior just as soon as possible as it starts, if it ever begins at all!