Teething and Biting

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated August 10, 2013.

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When babies are teething their gums may feel sore and uncomfortable.  Some babies find chewing on the nipple comforting for their sore gums. This can cause temporary pain or discomfort for the mother, but teething will pass once baby’s teeth erupt.  Many babies never bite; and those that do usually don’t do it more than once. 1

Babies don’t bite to be mean; rather if they do bite it is because they are in pain and are trying to find comfort.  Breastfeeding is not just about the nutrition but it is comforting being in the arms of your favorite person in the world.  Your baby doesn’t know she’s hurting you and she could become deeply hurt if your reaction to what she’s done is too strong.  Still, it is important to react calmly and quickly to teach your baby biting is not acceptable.

Biting does not happen during active breastfeeding

When a baby breastfeeds, a mother’s nipple is far in the back of a baby’s mouth – near the junction where the hard and soft palate meet.  A baby’s tongue extends down and out past the lower gum line.  Therefore, during active feeding, even a full mouth of teeth will not affect breastfeeding or cause any pain for a mother.  It is after the active suck/swallow/breathe rhythm, when baby is mostly done and continuing with comfort sucking (non nutritive sucking) that there is a tendency to release the latch and then use the nipple to ease the discomfort of the sore gums.  Some babies go so far as biting.

What should I do if my baby bites?

If your baby does bite, it is important to try to stay calm.  It can be painful and many mother’s react strongly by shouting, but this can startle or scare a sensitive child and lead to a nursing strike.  It is also important your child understands that biting hurts mommy and is not acceptable.  Use a clean finger placed between baby’s gums to break your baby’s latch; never rip your baby off as this can cause more nipple damage.  Then, explain (in age-appropriate language) that baby cannot bite.  Make sure that each time your baby bites you immediately, and calmly, break the latch and help your baby understand he cannot breastfeed if he is going to bite.

Strategies to deal with biting

  1. Be aware. Make sure to give your full attention to your baby while she nurses.  Remember, during the active suck/swallow/breathe phase your baby cannot bite.  It is when this is over, or between let-downs, that your baby may begin to loosen her latch and bite.
  2. Good latch & positional stability – Ensure your baby is well-latched to your breast and then gently but firmly hold your hand below her neck or in between her shoulder blades to ensure she doesn’t begin to slip down on your nipple and use it for teething comfort.
  3. Watch for signs baby is done breastfeeding – Most biting happens when baby is done with active suckling. He may be finished and begin to play at the breast, loosen his latch and use the nipple for comfort on his gums, etc. Pre-empt any biting by gently taking a finger and putting it between baby’s gums to break the latch and end the breastfeed.
  4. Remove sleepy baby from breast – As your baby finishes nursing and eases up on his latch he may enjoy a time of non nutritive sucking.  There is nothing wrong with this, and it even has many benefits (bonding, building milk supply, proper palate development).  In fact, breasts are the original pacifier!  But, if he is falling asleep he may startle and wake up and bite. If baby is in a teething stage and has bitten recently, this is a good time to unlatch a sleeping baby from the breast. Make sure to always unlatch by placing a clean finger between baby’s gums.  If baby does startle and wake while you do this he will bite your finger rather than nipple.
  5. Offer cold teething ring before nursing – this can help to numb baby’s gums and ease the discomfort so they are less likely to bite while breastfeeding.
  6. Watch for when your baby bites – Does your baby bite out of frustration because there is not a fast let down? (This could be from low milk supply, enjoying the fast flow of a bottle teat, one side having more milk than the other, etc.) Does your baby bite when she’s startled – perhaps by other children in the room? Does he bite when he’s playing in order to get your attention? Does she bite because she isn’t very interested in breastfeeding at the moment and would rather be playing?  Biting might be a way your baby is communicating her needs – try to listen and respect them.
  7. Be positive and praise success.  Always make the breast a warm and friendly place and make sure to praise your baby when she nurses without biting.

pH balance and teething

While a baby is teething, the pH balance of the saliva in his mouth can change. This change can sometimes cause increased sensitivity, pain, or discomfort for a mother’s nipple.  The duration is usually short and once a baby’s teeth erupt things usually return to normal quickly.  If your baby has optimal positioning and attachment but your nipples feel extra sensitivity during teething this could be the reason.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Morhbacher, N. (2010). Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple. Hale Publishing: Amarillo, TX p. 667
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