Q: I’ve been breastfeeding my five-month-old since he was born, but he just got his second tooth and I’ve just gotten my second bite. Any ideas for what works in this situation? I want to keep breastfeeding as long as possible.
A: Ouch! Babies may begin to bite while nursing when they get their first teeth, between 4 and 6 months. The good news is that your baby can’t breastfeed and bite at the same time. Biting tells you that your baby is either full, losing his “latch,” or feeling restless, playful, even curious. Understanding why biting happens, however, doesn’t mean that it’s okay. It hurts! But remember, as personal as biting feels (physically and emotionally), it’s not really about the mom. Instead, it’s a sign of tiredness, boredom, or curiosity from your baby. While it can be tough sometimes to keep angry reactions in check, it’s important to remember that your baby is still learning how to use his chompers and isn’t quite aware yet of what they can do.
It turns out that our natural reaction to being bitten, which is usually loud and dramatic, tends to startle the baby and sends the message that using teeth while nursing is a no-no. (Although a colleague’s baby actually found her yelps funny and it encouraged him to bite some more—evidence of the fact that there is never a one-size-fits all approach!) By immediately removing your baby from the breast (remember to slip your finger into his mouth to disengage him or it can really hurt!) and firmly saying “No biting”, you are letting him know you don’t like his behavior. This helps him understand that biting, in the context of nursing, is not appropriate. You’re also beginning to teach him the cause and effect of his actions: If he bites while nursing, Mom will remove the breast.
It’s important that after you remove your breast and wait a few seconds, you try again. If you continue with this strategy, over time he will connect your actions with his behavior and hopefully stop biting while nursing. To stop bites before they happen, observe your child while he’s nursing and remove your breast after rhythmic sucking has stopped. Then move him to the second breast before he has a chance to get bored or tired which are the “red alerts” for biting. (On the off chance that your baby does bite your breast and breaks the skin—which is very rare—do see a doctor. Human bites can be easily infected and can cause mastitis, or a breast infection.)
And don’t worry that biting signals the end of breastfeeding. Many mothers nurse their children into toddlerhood with no problems. Most babies quickly learn not to bite and are able to continue with the close and comforting ritual of nursing for as long as they and their mothers would like.