There is probably nothing more surprising, disorienting, and downright painful than when your baby bites you while breastfeeding.
Nipple biting while breastfeeding can seem to come out of nowhere and can be kind of shocking. You may be thinking, “Why is my baby doing this to me?” You may even let out a scream or quickly pull away.
The truth is, every breastfeeding mom has been bitten at one time or another — and boy can it hurt.
For the most part, biting is a passing phase, and there are a lot of ways to effectively cope if it happens to you (hint: yelping isn’t usually the most ideal strategy), or if it becomes a semi-regular thing.
It can also help enormously to understand why your baby is biting, because zeroing in on the reason can help you more effectively solve the problem.
We can’t always know why a baby bites during breastfeeding. Wouldn’t it be awesome to get into their little heads or ask them what’s up? Still, there are some common reasons that babies bite. They may be:
- teething with sensitive gums; biting may feel like a relief to them
- bored or distracted while nursing
- trying to get your attention
- feeling unwell with a cold or ear infection, making it difficult to swallow and suckle correctly
- overwhelmed by a fast milk flow or overactive letdown
- frustrated with a slow milk flow while waiting for milk to letdown
Sometimes babies will bite for more than one reason at once: for example, if they’re teething and have a cold. Sometimes you’ll be able to figure out the reason, and sometimes you’ll just have a hunch.
Either way, whatever the reason is, there are ways to cope — and most importantly, stop the biting from continuing.
You might wonder if you need to wean when your baby’s teeth erupt, and if teeth may contribute to even more biting. The truth is, it’s a myth that tooth emergence means that you have to wean.
Here’s why: When a baby is actively nursing and is latched on well, their teeth don’t make any contact with your nipple or breast. Their tongue and lips do the work here.
Think about when you suck out of a straw. You don’t use your teeth for that, and neither do babies when they suckle at the breast.
At the same time, when your baby gets teeth, their latch may change, so you may have to become more careful about how you hold them and how they latch on.
As always, you want to encourage “deep latching,” where your baby is sucking on your areola and breast, not the end of your nipple. You’ll want your baby to have a wide, open mouth. Having your baby’s chin lightly touch the bottom of your breast and holding them to be belly-to-belly with you can also encourage good latching.
So now the million dollar question: What on earth can you do if your baby bites?
Thankfully, you’ve got options.
Try to avoid a dramatic reaction
While yelling or screaming might be your first instinct when you’re bitten (and is probably exactly what you’ll do the first time it happens!), it’s not helpful in this situation and can backfire. Your baby may become upset and bite you more if they’re frightened by your response.
Laughing is also not helpful, as your baby may actually enjoy your reaction and try to elicit it again! Either way, taking a deep breath before reacting can help. You can calmly and succinctly tell your baby that biting isn’t okay.
Gently remove your baby from the breast
You will want to remove your baby from your breast as soon as they bite you so that they know they can’t continue to nurse if they bite. However, you don’t want to “yank” your baby off, as this can cause nipple damage.
Instead, put a pinky or other finger in the corner of your baby’s mouth, which will break the seal and allow your baby to detach. You can also try drawing your baby in close to you, briefly pressing their face into the breast, which can cover their nose and mouth and prompt them to unlatch.
Offer an alternative
If your baby appears to be teething, you may want to offer them a wet washcloth or teething toy to soothe their gums. You want to teach them not to use your breast as a teether.
Unfortunately, in some cases, biting can cause nipple damage, which can be quite painful. Besides reducing your baby’s biting, you will want to treat your nipple damage.
Some options include:
- Saline rinses. Salt water rinses can be very soothing for your nipples and are a natural way to gently heal your skin.
- Nipple creams. There are various nipple creams on the market, but they can be helpful if you have an abrasion or cut on your nipple. Nipple creams encourage “moist wound healing,” and can aid in healing your nipple skin.
- Pain relievers. If your baby’s bite continues to be painful, you can use an over-the-counter pain reliever that’s compatible with breastfeeding. Check with your lactation consultant or doctor for further guidance.
- Cold packs. Using ice or a cold pack can help soothe your nipples and reduce pain.
- Nursing on the undamaged side first. Start breastfeeding on the non-damaged side first for a few days as your skin heals. Babies tend to suck most vigorously when they begin a feed.
- Express your milk until healed. In rare cases, your nipple may be so damaged that nursing only makes it worse for a few days. Give that breast a few days of relief by nursing less frequently from that side, or avoiding it altogether. In those cases, you’ll want to express your milk from that side to keep up your supply and avoid engorgement.
Getting your baby to stop biting is all about prevention. Basically, if you know when biting usually happens, or what happens right before your baby bites, you can anticipate the biting and stop it from happening.
Here are some general things to take note of:
When does your baby typically bite?
Do they bite as they are waiting for the milk to flow? If so, squeezing your breast so that more milk flows or pumping a little to get the milk flowing before a feeding session can help.
Do they bite at the end of a session or when they seem bored? Offering them the other side or ending the breastfeeding session might be helpful here.
How is your baby’s latch?
Sometimes babies bite because they’re teething and the latch has changed. Or their growing bodies require different positions for comfortable latching.
Try adjusting your baby’s position and aim for deep latching. Sometimes you have to go “back to basics” with latching and remember all the tips you were taught when your baby was a newborn. You can also get help from a breastfeeding volunteer counselor or a lactation consultant.
What other behavior do you notice?
You might notice that your baby’s jaw tightens right before they bite. You might notice them become squirmy or restless. They might fuss or seem upset. Note what’s going on with them so you can unlatch when you see that behavior and suspect that they’re about to bite.
When you’re dealing with a nipple biting baby, you might feel desperate and upset, especially if the biting is happening frequently or leaving marks or cuts on your skin.
If you’ve tried the suggestions above, and your baby is still biting, getting in-person help can be helpful. A breastfeeding counselor or lactation consultant can watch you breastfeed and help you figure out if anything is wrong. They can also go over a list of triggers to help you pinpoint the problem.
It also makes sense to connect with other breastfeeding moms, online or at a breastfeeding support group. Finding out how real-life moms have coped with this can be super helpful. And they can also help you feel less alone.
Remember that as upsetting as a biting baby is, it’s actually quite common. All breastfeeding moms have dealt with it at one time or another. It can be helpful to figure out how to stop it from happening, but the truth is, it almost always passes on its own. So have a little faith, do what you need to do to get through it — and most importantly, try to keep on, keepin’ on. You’ve got this!