The shockwave of pain that runs through your body is only matched by the paralyzing panic of frantically trying to remove this piranha from your nipple. Biting while breastfeeding can occur with or without teeth, but know that your baby’s entry into the world of chompers doesn’t have to mean chomping or weaning. Here’s the 411 on how to handle your booby biter as you handle all of your parenting challenges: with respect, compassion, and Sage Parenting19 know-how.
If your baby is teething, the urge to bite down is powerful, so a firm “No biting” does not address the underlying need. Instead of fighting against your little one, work with her by providing her with teethers right before nursing (frozen bananas, blueberries, and mini bagels are great options for babies older than 6 months, while a wet frozen cloth and toy teethers are best for younger babes). This can satisfy and release the jaw’s aggressive energy before that achy, teething mouth takes in your precious nipple.
The most popular time for biting is at the end of a feeding, when your baby’s focus wanes from the serious work of eating and meanders to other things. Try to be aware of the signs indicating that Baby has finished his main course, and offer a teether and/or keep your finger right next to Baby’s mouth in case he starts to bite down. Since babies nurse for a myriad of beneficial reasons beyond hunger, I never removed my baby immediately following his main course, but I learned his cues signaling that his attention had moved on and was at the ready with a knuckle and something he could bite.
Feeding your baby on cue, as opposed to attempting to force your little one to breastfeed on your schedule, can also go a long way in setting you both up for success. If she is in an active state and you are trying to impose your agenda against her will, you are asking for trouble. We’ve all been there. One of the great things about breastfeeding is that it can serve so many purposes: silencer, pacifier, etc. But if Baby is in a biting phase, you must be especially mindful of her state and needs, following her cues for breastfeeding versus chewing. Remember that as your child grows, she earns greater autonomy, including within the breastfeeding relationship.
It is common for biting to begin around the time the sippy cup enters Baby’s world. Some sippy cups have a nipple-like spout that Baby safely chomps as he drinks. Then, when Baby is drinking at the breast, he simply continues this learned motion. This one is huge: Avoid sippy cups with spouts that come anywhere near resembling a nipple to avoid this problem. A cup with a straw-like apparatus (or even simply giving Baby drinks from an open cup) is a much better option if your baby has this nipple confusion.
Most of us instinctually pull Baby back away from the breast when bitten. This causes Baby to bite down even harder in an attempt to prevent the nipple from slipping out. The last thing you want is to find yourself in a tug-of-war with a little cannibal with your nipple as the prize. Instead, train yourself to react by doing the opposite: push Baby’s face into your breast. This will make it harder for your baby to breathe through his nose (bear with me for a second) and he will drop open his mouth to take a breath. Again, pushing in leads them to open, pulling away leads them to clamp. You can also wedge your finger in between their gums to lever their mouth the rest of the way open enough to retrieve your lost body part.
Babies, especially as they grow older, are little scientists who will repeat behaviors that elicit interesting responses. So your response to being bitten will play an integral role in either indirectly encouraging or extinguishing this behavior. If you react wildly, she will think, “Whoa! What was that? Again!” Whereas a loud yelp and flash of rage could traumatize your baby (Baby jumps and then cries) and can even elicit a nursing strike. A simple but firm, “Ouch, no bite” is the best verbal response. You can then offer the breast again. If Baby bites once more, respond again with, “Ouch, no bite,” but this time you put the breast away and redirect to another activity. If Baby requests milk again, go through the same process on the other side.
As with any parenting challenge that leaves you feeling hurt, it is important to remember that after only a few minutes, Baby has completely moved on. Holding on to any resentment and anger that can grow from hurt will not serve you, your baby, or your relationship. The best thing you can do is address the incident appropriately in the moment so you can both feel resolution and then let it go.
When my current nursling was around 18 months old, he would bite only when he was transitioning into a deep sleep. His jaw would start to quiver and would then clamp shut (as if forgetting why it was open). So as soon as I felt the quiver, I would quickly put my finger in the corner of his mouth between his gums, break the latch, and separate us.
Biting can be painful, but you can overcome this challenge by offering “yes” biting opportunities, being acutely aware of your baby’s state, feeding on cue, avoiding chewable fake nipples, and rewriting your response. Resisting the urge to pull away and instead pushing toward, containing an explosive reaction in favor of a muted but direct, “Ouch, no bite,” and then genuinely letting it go all serve to deter biting in a way that leaves your bond intact. Biting, well . . . bites. But as with most parenting challenges, you can combine your innate wisdom and intimate knowledge of your baby with some well-informed strategies to survive and thrive with your baby as a Sage Parent.