Breastfeeding and biting

When C was about 2 months old, I exchanged baby-related pleasantries with a lady in a shoe shop. After she had made the standard enquiries — how old was C, what was her name — she asked me whether I was breastfeeding. Although this was a fairly impertinent question, I was still in the midst of 2-hourly feeds, and therefore quite happy to talk to strangers about nursing. She then started telling me about her own grandchild, who was a few months older than C, and teething. I mentioned an acquaintance who’s son had just cut a tooth at three months. ‘That is early,’ she said, ‘and it’ll mean the end of breastfeeding!’

I knew, of course, that it meant nothing of the sort: from a physiological perspective teeth pose no problem at all, and  it is perfectly possible to breastfeed babies who have any number of them. My sister and I were both early teethers, and there was a possibility that C would be too. There was no way I was going to let that stop me from breastfeeding prematurely, and it simply wasn’t something I worried about.

I was right, of course, not to worry about teething and breastfeeding. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean it was going to be quite as trouble-free as I expected. When C’s bottom teeth came through, it was fine — I genuinely couldn’t tell when I was nursing. This is not altogether surprising, as the tongue extends over the bottom teeth during suckling, making biting pretty much impossible. When her top teeth started to appear, she let me know about it, however. Problems ranged from the odd isolated nip, to scraping her teeth along my nipple when she drew it into her mouth, to looking me in the eye and chomping down quite deliberately.

While I could tolerate the first two, the third I found both upsetting and eye-wateringly painful. I also took it personally. I could accept on a rational level that C probably wasn’t trying to hurt me deliberately, but it really didn’t feel like that. Tears and remonstrations followed these early biting episodes, and neither of us was very happy at the end of them.

I searched hard for a scientific perspective on the problem. How common was biting, how long would it last, and most importantly, was there anything I could do about it? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any research addressing these issues. There were plenty of midwives voicing their thoughts on the issue, but none backing it up with any evidence.

Opinions about the appropriate course of action can be divided roughly into two camps: tell your baby quite clearly not to do it and stop nursing immediately; or pretend it hasn’t happened and carry on. I tried both, and I have no idea which, if either, worked. All I do know, is that after a difficult few weeks of C biting on and off, she finally stopped sinking her teeth in, and hasn’t done it now for several months.

Many mothers find biting understandably difficult to cope with, and view it as a reason to stop breastfeeding, often because it appears to be a deliberate rejection of the breast. I took the view that although this might have been the reason C was doing it, a more likely scenario was that she was ill, tired, irritable, and/or just wanting to try out her freshly-grown teeth. As she’s got older, she indicates that she doesn’t want to feed by pulling away, shaking her head, and in certain extremely cute moments, waving goodbye to me. I’m optimistic that from now on, biting will remain a thing of the past.

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