Firstly, well done for making it far enough to even worry about teeth – you’ve done a great job. Teeth begin to erupt on average at about the 6 month mark, but I always explain to women that the first teeth are normal any time from birth until well past a year.
To work out whether biting is likely, normal or possible we need to consider the mechanism of feeding. Have you noticed by now that you can sometimes see your baby’s tongue at the edge of their mouth, poking out. Or when they pull off that their tongue is sometimes curled around and sticking out slightly? To breastfeed, a baby must bring their tongue down and forward, curling around your nipple and breast to make a seal. If their tongue were fully inside their mouth they wouldn’t feed effectively. For this reason, it is actually impossible to bite during feeding. ‘Yes Lyndsey’ I hear you say, ‘but why have so many of my friends talked about it then?’. Well, the answer is, babies do sometimes have a nibble, but it is not during active feeding. Babies have a reflex to bite down if they have pressure on their gums. That’s why when you insert your finger to break the seal and pull them off it often hurts, because you have applied pressure to their lower gum and their instinct is to clamp down. Apart from this scenario, there are some other predictable times and reasons that babies will bite.
- They have finished their feed and are ready to come off
- They are teething – the breast is very soothing to a teething baby and sometimes they bite to relieve some of the pressure in their gums
- They do not like fast flowing milk – biting down slows the flow of milk
- They did not want milk at all, they just wanted to suckle for comfort
- The milk is too slow flowing and they are frustrated
- They have bitten before and got a surprising reaction from you, and found it funny/entertaining/exciting
If they have finished their feed, you’ll know because they will have had a good drink, and then will slow down. Often at this point they will begin to fiddle with something – your hand, hair, other breast or pull at your skin. They often also make eye contact. Cheeky babies will occasionally smirk at you and you’ll see a wicked glint in their eyes! If it wasn’t so painful it would be funny! The trick here is to identify when the feed is over, or pretty much over, and get them off.
If they dislike fast flowing milk, you’ll know at the beginning of the feed, when milk starts flowing during your let down reflex. This is more common if you tend to gush, spray or have a tendency to oversupply. They may dribble and choke either before or at the same time as biting. Of course the solution for your baby would be to come off, but sometimes they bite rather than pull off as their instinct to protect their airway from choking is so strong. If they don’t pull off by themselves, one easy technique is to pull them very close to you, squashing their face into your breast. This may sound mean, but if they can’t breathe through their nose, they will automatically release the breast to breathe with their mouth. It’s not cruel, and they will not be harmed in any way – don’t worry. You’ll be pain-free in seconds I promise.
If the flow is slow, you’ll probably have a baby who is tugging at your breast, punching you, tossing their head from side to side, moaning or starting to feed very strongly. You’ll either be in this position because you have chronic low supply, or more likely, they have come to the end of their feed and the milk is naturally slowing down. Sometimes they do this because the milk is too creamy and they have had enough of it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have finished, but they behave better being transferred to the other side where the milk is likely to be faster flowing. If you have low supply, you could try breast compressions to speed up the flow of milk and decrease frustration.
The other common reasons for biting are to do with behaviour. The most common reason is that your baby at one point bit you, and you (understandably) squealed, shrieked or gave some other unusual reaction. For a lot of babies, this ‘new’ response from their mum is very exciting, and if they have reached the developmental milestone of being able to link cause and effect, they may do it again, to see if the same thing happens. If you think this is you, the best strategy is to put on your best poker face and not react at all. Even if it really hurts and you are furious, try to stay dead pan. If they don’t get a reaction, the behaviour will lose its appeal quickly.
Babies sometimes bite when they are teething because those erupting teeth make their gums tender and uncomfortable. Breastfeeding itself is soothing, but babies may also try to relieve the pressure by biting down. Whilst this is upsetting, it is also understandable. If this happens to you, it’s important to stay calm. If you shout at your baby you may frighten them and put them off feeding. I’ve come across a number of babies who will go on a nursing strike after being shouted at whilst on the breast. They associate the fright they got with being at the breast and then don’t want to repeat the experience. It’s best to calmly but firmly say ‘No biting’, take them off and give them something appropriate to chew on instead. If it becomes a real problem, try putting on some teething gel 5-10 minutes before a feed.
Occasionally, babies don’t actually want milk, they just want to suckle. If this happens, they sometimes get cross when milk starts flowing and will bite down to stop the flow of milk. Again, don’t get cross with your baby, just calmly take him off and say firmly ‘No biting’.
- Babies cannot physically feed and bite at the same time
- Babies bite for a reason, and figuring out the reason is the key to stopping or managing the behaviour
- If you are breastfeeding an older baby – try to plan ahead and be ready for this situation if it arises, so you’re not caught on the hop!