What Your Baby Is Trying To Tell You When They Bite You While Nursing
They might not have the hang of things quite yet.
It's never a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you — but babies have a lot of other things to learn before they start deciphering popular sayings like this one. That means you're the one who suffers if your baby bites hard on your nipple while nursing. But what does nipple biting mean? Is your baby upset? Is there something wrong with your breast milk? Is she ready to wean?
While a hard chomp on your tender flesh may not be an enjoyable experience, it is a way for your baby to communicate something to you. "One thing is for certain: A baby that's actively breastfeeding can't bite at the same time, since the tongue covers the lower teeth, and the nipple is hitting the softer palate at the back of the mouth," Adriana Lozada, advanced birth doula, postpartum educator, and host of the Birthful podcast, tells Romper. "If you feel teeth, then that's a reaction to something else."
Before you start diagnosing the problem, remember that this isn't something to get stressed about. "It can be quite common for babies with teeth, or even younger babies before teeth have sprouted, to bite down on mom’s nipple while nursing," Betsy Marks, M.D., a pediatrician and internist in Albany, New York, tells Romper. If you're in pain and need to get the baby to stop, Marks warns against pulling the baby off your breast, which can damage the nipple. "Instead, try to break the bite by putting your finger between their gums to open their mouth."
So, you've freed yourself from the iron grasp of your baby's gums — now what? Here’s how to figure out why your baby is biting while nursing in the first place, as well as how to prevent this uncomfortable behavior in the future.
Reasons Why Baby Is Biting You While Nursing
When it comes to babies and nipple biting, there is no one answer. "A baby biting your nipples can mean a lot of things, depending on the baby’s age," says Megan Davidson, Ph.D., doula and chest/breastfeeding counselor. However, it does not mean your baby is ready to wean.
1. Tongue Tie
One possible explanation is this: "It could be that the baby has a tongue tie and is having a hard time getting their tongue to cover their bottom gum," Davidson tells Romper. A tongue tie is when the tongue is tethered to the floor of the mouth by an unusually short or thick piece of connecting tissue. “Tongue ties, or lingual frenum anterior attachment, occur during growth and development,” Dr. Kevin Donly, former president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), previously told Romper. It doesn't always cause problems, and some tongue ties resolve naturally, but if it interferes with breastfeeding, a simple surgical procedure can correct it.
There are other physical reasons the baby might bite, too. "It may [be] because they don't quite have the hang of an effective latch-suck-swallow process, or something structural is getting in the way," such as torticollis, says Lozada. Despite the odd name, torticollis is a relatively common condition. "Torticollis is the tightening of neck muscles that results in babies preferring to tilt their heads to the side," pediatrician Natasha Burgert, M.D., FAAP, previously told Romper. To make nursing easier, try placing your baby in a "football" position, and if that doesn’t help, visit a pediatric physical therapist.
3. Milk Flow
Another cause of biting could be the flow of breast milk. "Sometimes biting is to quickly stop the flow of milk, while sometimes the bite is an attempt to trigger a new milk ejection reflex," says Danielle Downs Spradlin, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Oasis Lactation Services. In other words, the baby might be getting more milk than she can handle, or not as much milk as she wants.
Another more obvious reason for a baby biting hard while breastfeeding might be that she's teething. "Babies who are actively teething can have discomfort and can often want to bite down or chew on something to help with the discomfort of teething, so biting may feel good on their gums," says Marks. Or, it could be that you're nursing when she doesn't really want it. "A baby that's teething gets comfort from biting, so if you happen to misread the cues of discomfort as wanting to nurse and offer the breast... you may get bit," Lozada explains.
Biting might also come from distraction — either yours or the baby's. If they sense you are preoccupied, your baby may bite to try to get your attention. "It may also happen if the baby [themself] is distracted, turning [their] head with the nipple in his or her mouth, or starting to fall asleep while feeding," says Marks.
How To Get Baby To Stop Biting While Breastfeeding
Adjust Baby’s Position
If it's the latch-suck-swallow process that's getting in the way, you likely just need to adjust your baby's positioning. Knowing what a successful latch should look like is helpful. “Baby’s lips at the breast should form a wide gape ([at least a] 140-degree angle or greater), with all or most of the areola in the baby’s mouth,” lactation consultant Natalie Ward, BS, IBCLC, RLC, previously told Romper. And from the feeding side, you should "aim to get more of the areola area covered from near baby’s chin,” Ward said. “This is called an asymmetrical latch, meaning your nipple doesn’t go into the middle of your baby’s mouth (like a bulls-eye), but more towards the very back of the roof of the mouth.”
But if the problem is that your baby goes from correctly latching to biting, then you can start to learn their routine. "If you can anticipate the subtle change when unlatching before biting, you can try to prevent it,” Kristin Gourley, IBCLC manager at Lactation Link LLC, tells Romper.
Assess Your Supply
If oversupply is the problem and your baby is getting more milk than they can handle at one time, you can try to nurse more frequently, as well as adjusting your baby's positioning and attachment. If you need to increase milk flow, try using breast compression, or see what happens if you breastfeed as often as your baby is willing rather than at set intervals. However, the best bet is to see a professional. “If a mom is experiencing or suspects a supply issue (whether it be a potential oversupply or deficit), I would recommend she seek out a local IBCLC for assessment and a plan that’s individualized to her and her baby," nurse and lactation consultant Angie Natero previously told Romper.
Soothe Their Gums
There are also some techniques to try if the nipple biting is due to teething. “If teething is suspected, you can try to treat the pain before nursing with a frozen damp washcloth to chew on, a breast milk popsicle, or if they are old enough, you could also use ibuprofen,” lactation consultant Tera Hamann, IBCLC, previously told Romper.
Try Not To React
If your efforts to curb the biting aren't having the desired effect, try and see what happens if you just don't react. "Most babies will stop biting if the behavior is ignored," Downs Spradlin says. "Others may need to be put down and left to play alone for a minute or two to get oral stimulation from a toy."
In any case, "it is important to try not to react too strongly, such as yelping," says Gourley. "This can scare baby away from breastfeeding in the future." While there are many explanations and ways to address a baby biting while nursing, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm and collected while you breastfeed. A baby biting will certainly be uncomfortable, but with time, effort, and a chat with a medical professional, you should be able to work through it.
Adriana Lozada, advanced birth doula, postpartum educator, and host of the Birthful podcast
Betsy Marks, MD, pediatrician and internist in Albany, New York
Megan Davidson, Ph.D., doula and chest/breastfeeding counselor
Dr. Kevin Donly, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD)
Natasha Burgert, M.D., FAAP, pediatrician
Danielle Downs Spradlin, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Oasis Lactation Services
Natalie Ward, BS, IBCLC, RLC, lactation consultant
Kristin Gourley, IBCLC manager at Lactation Link LLC
Angie Natero, nurse and lactation consultant
Tera Hamann, IBCLC, lactation consultant
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