I had a question today from a young Mom asking if I could guide her to some information about gentle and effective ways to respond to her baby who has started biting while breastfeeding.
Kathy first posed her question on a discussion board, which led to a lively discussion with conflicting opinions about what she should do, (none of which felt quite right to her) including the suggestion that she should “flick” her baby’s nose so the baby would learn to associate the pain with the biting, and therefore be less likely to bite in the future. This prompted another participant in the forum to ask if a four month old baby was too young to learn from having her nose “flicked” and yet another to ask, “What if the baby only bites when she’s asleep?”
I am not a lactation consultant or expert, yet I can say without hesitation that “flicking” a baby’s nose in order to cause pain, thus”teaching” her not to bite while breastfeeding, is not a gentle, respectful way to approach the situation, and I doubt that it’s very effective, anyway.
Babies are not able to take the viewpoint of another, and so don’t yet understand that their actions may cause another person pain. This understanding develops slowly over time. In my opinion, “flicking” a four month old baby’s nose to “teach” her not to bite could be considered mildly abusive.
Babies learn in the context of loving, trusting relationships with patient, caring adults. To be sure, this does not mean that a Mom should have to quietly endure her baby’s bite, as innocent or exploratory as it might be, but the solution is not to inflict pain on the baby in return.
In the case of a baby who only bites when she is asleep, the solution is simple: Remove (or unlatch) the baby from your breast before the baby falls asleep, or as soon as you notice the baby has fallen asleep. If baby has filled her tummy, and is now drowsing off, it’s best to allow her to fall asleep without using your breast as a “pacifier”. (Very young babies may fall asleep at the breast more quickly and easily, but if they are still hungry, they will rouse with a change of position and resume vigorous nursing.)
In terms of Magda Gerber’s teachings about breastfeeding, she recognized feeding times as intimate, connected times, and also as “learning” times for babies. She urged Moms to minimize distractions, focus on baby, and pay close attention to their cues whenever or however feeding a baby – by breast, bottle, or spoon. She also encouraged Moms to separate a baby’s need for nourishment from a baby’s need or desire to suckle for comfort. For more on Magda Gerber’s approach to feeding babies in attuned, respectful ways from the very beginning, I refer you to Janet Lansbury’s wonderful, informative post, Mindful Mouthfuls -Helping Our Babies Learn Healthy Eating.
The question remains- what are gentle but effective ways to discourage a baby from biting while breastfeeding? I like the information and guidelines offered in this brief but comprehensive article written by Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC which suggests several reasons why a baby may be biting (not hungry, boredom, experimentation, teething, or asking for Mom to pay (more) attention, among others.)
Depending on the age of your baby, and the circumstances in which she is biting, there are a number of possible solutions. The article notes that a baby who is actively nursing is not able to bite, and also discusses ways to help Mom and baby adjust the latch when baby is not biting, but Mom is uncomfortable due to pressure from baby’s teeth. The article contains additional resources, and information for how to care for your breasts if you’ve received a painful bite.
I’d also love it if any of you who have had experience with your baby biting during breastfeeding would share your thoughts or solutions with Kathy (and me) below.