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Ask Dr. Sears: Biting While Breastfeeding

Q. My seven-month-old has two bottom teeth and bites everything  -- most concerning is that he bites me! My other children didn't get teeth until after they were weaned. He seems to bite when he's in a playful mood, more than just accidental biting. How do I keep him from doing that?

Babies do bite the breast that feeds them. Babies will gnaw on anything that relieves the pain of teething, but there's another reason they bite that you probably never imagined: Babies bite as a sign of affection. This even happens with other mammals in the animal kingdom! On a trip to the aquarium a while back, I was amazed to learn that baby dolphins will give their mothers what dolphin trainers call "love nips," sometimes so hard that they scar the mother dolphin. It's an interesting occurrence in nature, but biting while breastfeeding is an annoying nuisance.

Here are some ways to tame your little love nipper:

Do your best to control your reaction. The relaxing hormones that breastfeeding gives you send you into a tranquil state. When Little Chomps bites down all of the sudden, it's only natural to react with an "Ouch!" But when this happens, you run the risk of startling the baby, and that might lead to a "nursing strike," with your baby refusing to nurse for a couple of days. Still other babies respond to the yank-and-yell response in the opposite way. They get the message that if they bite they get taken off the breast. So do what you can to squelch your shrieks.

Push baby in toward you. The usual reaction is to yank the baby away from your breast, but here's a trick that worked with some of our little biters. Instead of yanking baby off the breast, Martha would immediately push baby's mouth in toward the breast. That would temporarily block the nose, and baby would then need to release the tight-mouth grip in order to breathe. Soon baby gets the message that biting gets this reaction, and he's likely to stop biting.

Give him something else to bite on. Keep your knuckle or finger near the corner of his mouth. As soon as he starts to bite, immediately insert your finger between teeth and nipple. This will quickly protect your nipple. Between nursings, let him bite on a frozen banana or cool teething ring to both soothe his swollen gums and satisfy his need to gnaw on something.

Learn the timing of your baby's bites. Usually babies bite toward the end of a nursing cycle. At this point they've finished getting enough milk and simply want to play around by gnawing on your nipple. Anticipate this and take your baby off the breast as soon as he begins to slow the intensity of his sucking. He can continue sucking awhile on your finger.

Try the pull-off-and-put-down technique. When baby bites, immediately take him off the breast and put him down. Don't do this in any punitive way  -- just let him know with your body language that biting means an end to the nursing. By 9-months-old, most babies can learn this association.