Biting can happen at anytime during the breastfeeding experience. It can happen to the most experienced moms, and even breastfeeding educators. One thing is for sure, it’s not fun. However, it doesn’t have to last long.
The reasons for biting, and the right solution for you, differ depending on your child’s age. One rule spans the ages: biting does not usually occur with a good latch.
Newborns don’t (usually) have teeth. However, they can quite forcefully gum the breast. I have seen doula clients, and myself, get clamped down on with such force that it feels just as hard as if there were teeth. Usually this happens as baby and mom are learning how to breastfeed together. Especially with babies that have specific anatomy preventing a textbook latch or difficulties with following their instincts.
In the ideal latch, both top and bottom lips are flanged (or turned) out. The baby takes a good portion of the nipple and areola into their mouth. The latch is held by the suction created by the tongue. The latch is not held by the gums. Gums resting on the breast is a sign of a lazy or incorrect latch.
In cases of tongue-ties, babies may not be able to extend their tongue far enough to latch properly. Instead, they may attempt to latch by clamping down their jaws. Sometimes, they are able to latch at the beginning of a feeding, but maintaining the latch takes so much effort that they tire easy. Then as they start to slip off the breast during a feeding, or as they fall asleep, they clamp down in a desperate attempt to hang on. Understanding the motivation behind the biting in my newborn, helped me mentally. It was nice to realize my baby wasn’t trying to hurt me, but just wanted to hold on better.
-What can you do to fix it?
- Laid back breast feeding can be good tool to allow baby to work with their instincts. This was a big help with my son after leaving the NICU. He had a subdural hematoma that was putting pressure on his brain stem. This pressure interfered with his instincts to eat. Laid back breast feeding, and bringing his feet down lower from his head, helped him work with the little instinct he had.
- Make sure you get your baby to open their mouth wide enough to take in enough of your breast. Hold your hands in a “C” shape, grab your breast, a little closer to your body from the areola, and press down slightly making a “breast sandwich.” This helps baby get a good mouth full of nipple and areola. While holding your breast, brush your nipple across baby’s bottom lip. You can also squeeze a drop of milk, and brush that drop against the baby’s bottom lip. Wait for your baby to open their mouth wide, and then bring them, open-mouthed, onto your breast. Remember you are aiming your nipple towards the back and roof of baby’s mouth, in the soft palate area.
- If these tips for a better latch do not work, or if baby is still gumming the breast, then it is definitely time to meet with an IBCLC. She can evaluate baby’s ability to latch, and see if there are lip-ties, tongue-ties, or anything else making it a little more difficult. If needed, a tongue-tie revision can dramatically improve your latch, and cut down on baby’s need to gum the breast. It can also help your child with speech and dental health down the road.
When babies start to teeth, they have the instinct to bite down out to reduce the pain. If your baby is fussing because of this pain, and you bring them to the breast, then there is a good chance you will get bit. A squishy breast is tempting to sink sore gums into. Breastfeeding can be a great comfort for that teething pain. However, also make sure that your baby has a good outlet for biting down. Try to determine if they are fussy and looking for something to bite, or if they are hungry. Then offer accordingly. If you baby is looking for comfort nursing at this time the following tips will also help.
-What can you do to fix it?
If your baby bites you there are two wonderful options.
- “No and Off.” Slip your finger in-between their jaws to open the bite, and take them off of the breast. Withhold nursing for 10-30 seconds, depending on age. You can combine this with a firm “No” or “No biting.” Gauge the firmness of the “no” with your baby’s sensitive nature. You don’t want them to cry from hurt feelings or being startled (If you can help it, that is. Sometimes you yelp from the pain and that startles them enough to cry). The intention is to teach baby that if they bite, their food goes away. The intention is not to scare them. I am always amazed at how quickly this works. Babies are very smart. They also love their milk and will do what it takes to keep it.
About five years ago, my second baby was teething. The first two teeth were manageable, but the next two were brutal. One day I got bit a couple times. Those razor teeth cut so deep that I debated about getting stitches. I honestly worried that continuing to nurse my biting baby may do enough damage that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed any future babies. I thought we had reached the end of that breastfeeding relationship. Thankfully, I started saying “No” and taking him off. Once, I also tried the often recommended little flick to the cheek. However he didn’t need it, and I didn’t like the idea of flicking him. The no was enough of a startle, and stopping nursing for a few seconds was enough motivation. We didn’t need anything more. By the next day the biting was gone and I had started to heal. We were able to continue breastfeeding for another 9 months with no issues. My next baby this method worked the same way, but we were able to prevent the biting getting as severe. Over the years I have seen this work with countless other moms.
- “Smother with Kindness.” If baby starts to bite down, you pull them in closer into the breast. This triggers them to open their mouth. Baby should be able to breathe the whole time. It is the trigger of having more around their face and mouth which triggers the opening of the mouth and deep breath. You can use this method to draw baby in at the first sign that they are starting to bite down. They will open back up nicely. However, compared to “No and Off,” it does take longer for baby to learn not to bite. This, may be my new favorite method. It doesn’t include the battle of getting baby to release the bite and stop clamping down on the nipple. I have used this with my youngest with great success. It’s worked well for other doulas and doula clients also.
- As the nursing relationship continues, sometimes the latch gets a little sloppy and baby may rest their new teeth against the breast. This can make mom a little sore. If you notice teeth rubbing during your nursing session, break the latch and start fresh with the basics listed under the newborn section above. You want a nice open mouth, and holding on with the tongue and not jaw. If your latch stays ideal, then baby will have to break that latch with their tongue BEFORE biting you. This can signal you to remove them from the breast or pull them in closer.
The Tired, Silly, or Bored Baby
Falling asleep, boredom, and getting a reaction can all be reasons babies bite. Sometimes this is done out of an attempt to keep the latch as they fall asleep. Depending on the baby’s age, it could be part of exploring or trying to get your attention. Biting may also be an attempt to play with you.
-What can you do to fix it?
- Pay attention to when they fall asleep. Be aware of your baby slipping off the breast, or unlatching. These are key times that they may sleepily attempt to grab back on. If they are done, go ahead and gently slip your breast out of their mouth.
- A baby may get bored during or after a feeding. They may unlatch their tongue and play with the nipple in their mouth, this includes biting. Try to be mentally present as you breastfeed. Try to notice if they break that latch, and keep your nipple in their mouth. Then you can either remove your nipple from their mouth and play, or you can draw them in close to see if they will latch back on and continue eating. If you don’t notice they have unlatched until you are bit, then choose your preferred method of “No and Off” or “Smother with Kindness.”
- Sometimes older babies may bite trying to be silly. They may be looking to get a reaction out of you and it is usually accompanied by a giggle. In this case, I suggest unlatching, saying “Ouch! That hurts mommy,” and putting your breasts back in your bra/shirt. I find this often happens after baby has eaten their fill or if you are distracted with something else.
Whatever the age and reasons for your biting, there are options and help out there. I know how painful and discouraging it can be. I also know that the solutions may seem overly simplistic. It doesn’t require complex solutions. Give them a try, you can get through this. Good luck, I hope you find the solution that works best for you and your baby. For more information check out these links on breastfeeding and biting. Breastfeeding Basics and Kelly Mom