All content of this blog is my own opinion only. It does not represent the views of any organisation or association I may work for, or be associated with. Nothing within this blog should be considered as medical advice and you should always consult your Doctor.

When The Breastfeeding Baby Bites

Common advice for a biting breastfed baby is to say no firmly, show baby you mean it and sometimes even sternly place them on the floor.  Indeed Babycentre say:
"Say no firmly, look him in the eye with displeasure and stop the feed. He needs to associate biting with losing the breast - most babies will dislike this separation.  If he persists, put him on the floor for a short time immediately after he bites."
Other advice varies, La Leche League say:
"A mother's natural response to pain may discourage further biting. Many babies startle at their mother's loud exclamation and immediately release the nipple. Some may even cry. This negative reinforcement seems to make many babies stop completely."
Although they do acknowledge:
"Such prompt and direct responses occasionally backfire with sensitive babies, who may react by refusing the breast altogether. This sudden disinterest in nursing or outright rejection of the breast is called a nursing strike. A nursing strike can be distinguished from actual weaning by its sudden onset and the fact that the baby seems miserable. It may take lots of coaxing to persuade a baby who has been "on strike" that it's okay to resume nursing. Therefore, it is wise not to exaggerate your response to biting beyond what is natural for you."
but even they add:
"Some mothers may want to take firmer action after a bite and quickly sit baby down on the floor. After a few seconds of distress, baby can then be comforted and should get the message that biting brings negative consequences." sensibly point out:
"Try not to scream. While it will get baby's attention, it may also be a "reward" for that high need baby who likes lots of action. Of course, sometimes, screaming can't be controlled!"
Is being firm and strict the only way?

To me the above all seems a bit Supernanny, the baby equivalent of time out.  Firm, displeasure, forced separation (rejection) distress, negative consequences all feature in the above.  For babies?  Saying no sternly, showing them you "mean it" etc is very different in the context of nursing than it is if you say no for other trivial things.   Some babies as discussed above can seem to think the act of them nursing has caused the displeasure, or simply don't know and become distressed - responding by ceasing nursing rather than stopping biting.

If we work from the basis a baby knows that biting hurts and he shouldn't do it and thus is deliberately causing someone pain - perhaps the above logic makes more sense.  But I've seen these suggestions for babies 3 months and over, not a 2yr old .  If the potential result is a nursing strike, shouldn't we be exploring if there are other ways of solving the problem?

Is the important message we want to convey that biting causes them to "lose the breast"?  Or is it actually that biting hurts and so we shouldn't bite people?  Which message is the baby able to apply to other situations as they grow?  Do we want our children to not do something because they recognise it's the wrong thing to do, or for a self centered reason ie to prevent something they have being taken away?

The age of the baby and the timing of the bite is also key.

If baby bites at the start of a feed, it can indicate the tongue is not moving forward over the gums as required.  When a young baby gets something in their mouth it triggers the clamp and bite reflex - if the tongue is forward as it should be for nursing, this prevents biting.

For this reason we find babies who have a shallow latch are far more likely to bite, as are tongue tied infants.  Some babies with tongue tie will extend their tongue, but it retracts when touched - this means they come to the breast tongue forward, go to latch - the tongue retracts and they inadvertently bite.

Biting mid feed can be an attempt to increase flow of milk, and a baby having difficulty effectively transferring milk can try this trick, particularly if they have a sippy cup that requires biting to release liquid (such as the leak proof ones with a valve).

Just like above, if the baby starts to slip down the nipple when feeding - the bite reflex may again kick in.

End of feed biting may be something baby tries out when he's finished nursing, just to see what it's like or perhaps because they're teething and gums are sore.  Remember though they have no concept that it hurts - they may like the feeling of biting but babies simply aren't capable of maliciously intending to cause pain.

So let's think about the above again from the perspective of a baby.  Someone who has no idea what being bitten feels like, and even if they have been on the receiving end from another child - still don't make the connection until older that they are causing similar discomfort.

If you accidentally did something that hurt someone, would you prefer them to sternly and curtly reject you with a "no" or would you prefer them to explain that it really hurt and that they really would like you to not to do it again.  Wouldn't the first leave you confused?   What would "no" teach you?  Surely far less than understanding your actions caused pain..

As the second website highlights - baby may find it all a bit bemusing and so try different things he did around that time to provoke a similar response or just repeat the exciting noise he got mummy to make.  That's as far as baby logic goes...

  • Check positioning - if baby is straining slightly to reach the breast, as he tires he can slip back a little prompting his bite reflex (this can also happen if baby falls asleep and starts to fall off).  Holding baby nice and close can help.
  • Feed baby on cue - a schedule fed baby may be more likely to bite if they don't want to feed when offered.
  • Excessive biting is worth checking out with a Lactation Consultant or suchlike, because as discussed above if the tongue is restricted we note baby may be more likely to bite when younger, but also when bigger.  The nipple is more likely to slip causing biting, and some use a compensatory technique to get around the restricted tongue which works until teeth appear!  It can also be a technique to try and increase milk flow.
  • Stop the feed -  but swap stern and showing who is boss, for hurt/pain ie the genuine emotion you feel in that situation.  How you express this depends on the nature and age of your baby.  For some a sad face can suffice, particularly the more sensitive type; some respond better to a pretend cry (as they do to indicate their discomfort).  Some may smile/laugh, although with babies this isn't always genuine amusement - they may instead dislike the emotion you're conveying and so try smiling/laughing in an attempt to encourage you to mimic them.
  • Express it hurts - sadly/genuinely/gently, not angrily.  For a younger baby a simple "ouch, biting hurts mummy", can suffice.  For an older nursling you can explain "biting hurts, please be gentle" or "if you need to bite, you can bite this (giving a teether or suchlike) not mummy" etc
  • Offer something else they can bite - a damp (clean!) facecloth placed in the freezer for a short period can make an instant teether a younger baby can hold on to.  Some mums find something cold before a feed (or applying typical teething remedies if used) can prevent biting during feeding, others find it makes it worse..
  • If they repeat - some may find all the response to the biting so interesting they go straight back for another go.  This isn't your baby being naughty or challenging you, it's normal learning about cause and effect, how/why etc.  Instead of stopping the feed and placing baby elsewhere, again calmly repeat the above and then isntead of re-offering immediately distract with something else or find something else interesting for you both to do. This still sends the message biting hurt and can't continue, without distress and rejection.
"Pain" or "Ouch" 
  • Try baby sign - I believe signing is a fantastic way of babies understanding big concepts like pain.  You can sign it when they bump or hurt themselves, if someone else hurts themselves and shows distress and so when you sign it, it can help them link everything together.
The pain sign is directional so you can move it to the appropriate point of pain ie if it's a painful foot you sign pain over the foot, a hurt breast the same. As a result I've seen preverbal babies able to convey their gums hurt by signing in their mouth or one 13 month old tell the doctor his throat hurt - it can be invaluable in other ways too!
If my youngest nibbled during feeding and I explained it hurt, from around 10/11 months he would sign sorry and reattach super carefully -

  • Hawk eyes - as discussed a baby has to shift from a good attachment to one with his tongue retracted to bite (which he may do by pulling backwards), so watch closely and remove him quickly as soon as he starts to adjust.
How to remove a biting baby from the breast
Simply pulling a baby from the breast can cause damage to the nipple and potentially further clamping

1. Pop your finger in the corner of your baby's mouth between his gums (or teeth!) Keep your finger
there to prevent further clamping whilst you pull nipple away.

2.  When you notice baby starting to slip backwards, pull baby closer to the breast - this can prevent biting and prompt an open mouth to extract your nipple.

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