Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gently Responding to a Baby's Bite

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at

My little Pookaloo has her two bottom teeth. She is currently teething with the upper two teeth, which gives her a pretty strong urge to chew and bite to relieve the pressure of those teeth working their way to the surface. And, so, inevitably, she bit me while nursing 2 weeks ago.

It hurt, so I yelped. She did it again and for a day and a half or so, it happened almost every time we nursed. I was frustrated, she was frustrated, so I sought advice on gentle ways to stop it.

I was surprised and dismayed at the advice I received to just hurt her in some way, whether to flick her on the mouth or to bite her back. My mom told me the story of how my brother never nursed again after she tried the flicking tactic, which definitely convinced me not to risk that approach.

Here are the more gentle (and ultimately effective) approaches I ended up taking.

One dear friend shared tips she had learned in her breastfeeding class
  1. Bites are more likely to happen when baby is distracted/full, so stop nursing immediately when you notice the baby is not swallowing. (This has the disadvantage of eliminating nursing for comfort and nursing to sleep, two items in my mama toolkit that come in very handy and that I would be loathe to go without.)
  2. If a bite is already in progress, you can get the baby to let go by pulling her in closer to the breast which will block her ability to breathe through her nose long enough to make her open her mouth since all babies instinctively prioritize breathing over everything else.

Through this and my own research, I developed a strategy and put it into action. Here's a summary of what I did that I wrote to some online mommy friends:

When she bit me the first time [in the nursing session], I put her down and said, "Oh, you bit, you must be done eating." She cried, signed milk, indicating she was still hungry/interested in nursing. I picked her up and soothed her and then when she calmed down we tried again.

I remember reading ... that you can tell when a baby is about to bite because they have to pull their head back and move their tongue out of the way. I held her in very close to my breast, and when she pulled back at all, I broke suction and said, "No biting, sucking only." She would cry, and then we'd try again. At first I was having to repeat that every few sucks, but then she got down to business and stopped biting.

I used the pull her in so close that she opens her mouth to breathe trick a few times when I realized I had missed her pulling back cue and that she was already in mid-bite, and it worked!

We got through the night without her biting me in my sleep, which was what I was most worried about since I couldn't be as vigilant about watching her pre-biting signs.

Then the next day I wrote:

It happened again once yesterday evening, and I calmly put her down. She cried, we talked about it, I gave her a second chance and she was fine the rest of the night.

So that seemingly cured her of biting. But, teething is kicking into high gear and that must be why biting recurred twice in the past two days. Each time she bit, I calmly put her down or handed her to Papabear and then I gave her a second chance.

I'd like to think that this approach better reflects and models God's gentle grace and guidance than the alternative while still being effective.

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