While biting can be a problem for some mothers, mothers should not think that all babies will bite the nipple. When a baby is breastfeeding correctly, he is not able to bite, because his tongue is over his bottom gum (and teeth). It is when babies are not actively feeding that they may bite. This is usually at the beginning of the feed or at the end when you are not paying full attention to your baby, or they have had enough.
The teething baby
A teething baby whose gums are tender often likes to bite and chew and might do so while attempting to feed. Giving him something hard and cold to chew on, or rubbing his gums before a feed may relieve your baby's discomfort. This may make him less inclined to chew on the breast. If you feel your baby is experiencing a lot of pain, you may need to consult your pharmacist or health care provider for pain relief or a teething gel.
Some babies with newly-erupted teeth will 'rest' these teeth on the mother's areola or breast, leaving little indentations, that although not a bite, can be quite painful. At times like this it helps to go back to basics with positioning and attachment. Take care when you are feeding that your baby is held closely chest-to-chest, has a big wide mouth and has his chin to your breast. Careful positioning and attachment and a little time for those very sharp top teeth to smooth down and you will soon be feeding in comfort again.
Some mothers feel that changes in the teething baby's saliva can irritate the nipples. Rinsing the nipple area after feeds with a little bicarbonate of soda dissolved in water, (approximately 1 teaspoon to 1 cup), bathing in salty water or even a swim in the ocean, may relieve soreness of this kind.
A nipple that has been bitten by baby's sharp new teeth can be treated in the same way as a sore or cracked nipple - smearing on breastmilk after a feed, exposure to fresh air and prompt changing of damp nursing pads or bras. See your medical adviser if these measures do not promote healing, or if the area becomes inflamed or infected.
The baby who bites
Some babies bite because the milk does not come quickly enough, or perhaps because Mum is talking to someone else and not giving them the attention they want. Some babies bite at the end of a feed when they have had enough and are playing at the breast.
If your baby tends to bite because he is impatient, it may help to express a little before the feed so that the milk flows straight away. This might only be necessary when your baby is tired or very hungry.
Watch your baby while he feeds and if he just seems to be playing, or gets a mischievous look in his eye, break the suction and take him off straight away. If he does bite, saying 'No!' firmly and taking him off the breast straight away will teach him not to do it. Try to avoid a loud 'Ouch!' as this may either frighten your baby, or alternatively amuse him, so he may try it again.
Is there something in baby's mouth?
Most babies who are at the crawling or just walking stage put things into their mouths. If you have a baby like this, it is worth checking his mouth when picking him up and putting him to the breast. A baby with something else in his mouth (food, a small piece of paper from the floor or even sand from the sand pit) may well bite while trying to get on to the nipple - or the foreign substance itself may damage nipple skin.
The baby who refuses to go to the breast.
Some babies seem to experience more discomfort than others when teething and sore gums may lead to refusal to breastfeed. Discussing suitable pain relief with your medical adviser and offering your expressed breastmilk, via a cup, spoon or syringe may help.
Sometimes, a baby who has been frightened by his mother's reaction to being bitten, refuses to go back to the breast. Please see the separate article on breast refusal for the many suggestions to persuade baby back to the breast.
Very occasionally, despite all the best efforts, a baby never goes back to the breast and thus weans himself. This can be very devastating for the mother. Talking to an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor may help you work through the many emotions which occur with sudden weaning.
Biting, if it does occur, is nearly always just a temporary phase. It is always helpful to talk to an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor if biting is a problem. If you have been bitten, you might find our booklet Breastfeeding: breast and nipple care has some useful tips. ABA booklets are available for purchase from Mothers Direct.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association Reviewed October 2012