It takes some time for babies to get the hang of breastfeeding. As they get older and become more curious, they may start to experiment with different nursing positions and develop habits they associate with breastfeeding. It isn't uncommon for moms to wonder "Why does my baby play with my other nipple while breastfeeding?"
One of the habits many breastfeeding babies develop is known as "twiddling," which is when babies find comfort in twisting, fiddling with, or moving something with their free hand while they nurse, according to Kelly Mom. For some, this urge can be satisfied by holding a blanket or a small toy. But, many babies will reach over and pinch or twist their mom's free nipple or knead her other breast.
Although the exact reason behind this impulse is not known, lactation consultant Anne Smith, IBCLC from Breastfeeding Basics, suggested that similar behavior has been observed by other mammals in an attempt to encourage the let-down reflex of the other breast. Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann of the St. Louis Children's Hospital's website Children's MomDocs agreed noting that nipple stimulation causes the release of a neuro hormone called oxytocin which promotes milk production. Playing with the other breast can also be a convenient way for a baby to remain focused and nurse longer and more calmly, according to Breastfeeding Place.
Nipple twiddling may serve a purpose, but for many moms it is uncomfortable and can be downright painful. It's also a hard habit to break. Berchemann warned that many toddlers continue nipple twiddling after weaning. Because of this, lactation consultant Kelly Bonyata told Kelly Mom that encouraging good breastfeeding manners and discouraging unwanted behavior early on can prevent this from happening. If you notice that your baby is reaching out toward your free breast, find other ways to occupy your his or her hands. Offer your baby a blanket, a small toy, or your finger to hold instead. Many moms also find that wearing a nursing necklace can keep a baby busy while breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding Place recommended keeping your other breast covered while breastfeeding, and gently pulling your baby's hand away when attempting to twiddle. You can also say "No, this hurts Mommy." For toddlers who continue to attempt to twiddle, Smith suggested a verbal warning of "We’re going to stop nursing if you keep (pinching, pulling, etc.)," and if the behavior continues, stop the feeding and return to it at a later time.
Most experts agree that for moms who are not comfortable with nipple twiddling, it is much easier to discourage the habit from forming rather than trying to encourage your child to stop.