Earlier this year, Lisa Masterson told the mother of a 10-month-old baby in the audience that she needed to wean her little one after she teethed on mom's nipple, and The Doctors' online site followed up with a thread of reader-based techniques to shift to cow's milk rather than mother's milk - even when baby refused cow's milk (smarter than 'the doctors' I guess). There are a number of things wrong with this terrible advice - but first and foremost is that (according to studies and meta analysis by the AAFP, WHO and multiple national lactation/pediatric/health counsels) babies need their mothers' milk until they are at least 24 months of age for normal, baseline growth and development - physically and mentally. Especially at the age of 10 months, a baby also needs the social and emotional connection that comes with a nursing relationship with his mother.
As William Sears points out below, the longer a baby receives human milk, the better his health and cognition will be -- or, to use language that is more appropriate -- babies who are prematurely weaned (through forced weaning, mother-led weaning, or what I call 'situational weaning') face negative consequences in health and mental development. There are a number of effective strategies to implement if your baby teethes on your nipple, or falls asleep at the breast - forced weaning is not one of the smart ones. There is a reason baby teeth are called "milk teeth" - they are meant to be present during these early nursing years, and mom's milk enables them to grow healthy and strong. Please see these tips below and the additional sites linked at the bottom for more information. I shudder at the number of babies (read: future adults!) who were impaired by Masterson's uninformed and ignorant suggestion.
Teething on Mom's Knuckle ~ Photo by Phil Jern ©2008
By William Sears, M.D.
During teething time, babies will gnaw on anything -- including a mother's nipples! Don't let this annoying habit lead you to wean your baby sooner than she is ready. According to numerous studies, the longer a baby is breastfed, the smarter and healthier she will be. The following tips will help discourage your baby's inclination to nibble -- and lessen the pain when she does -- so you both can extend, and enjoy, your nursing relationship.
Say "ouch!" When it hurts, say so. Your reaction may take your baby by surprise, causing her to promptly stop biting. When used on a younger baby -- say, 9 months -- an exaggerated startle response can lead to the baby weaning prematurely (she doesn't understand it was her action that caused your reaction). At 15 months, however, your baby is probably old enough to understand your emotional reaction without being driven to stop nursing. So be aware of your baby's developmental point, and respond accordingly.
Try a counter-intuitive trick. When your baby bites, the natural reaction is to pull her away from the nipple. Instead, pull her more tightly against your breast. This buries her nose temporarily in the breast, causing her to open her mouth to breathe. When she releases the biting pressure, immediately resume your normal nursing. Eventually, she'll associate biting with this unpleasant buried-in-the-breast experience.
Protect your nipple. Keep a finger near the corner of her mouth while your baby nurses. Instead of yanking and yelling when she clamps down, work your index finger between your baby's gums and gently pry her jaws apart. Hook the end of your finger around the nipple to protect it as you withdraw it from baby's mouth.
Go with knuckle-gnawing. As soon as she starts biting, immediately slide your finger into her mouth (between her teeth), slide your finger around your nipple, and let her gnaw on your knuckle instead. This nipple-saving trick works especially well if your baby is experiencing gum pain during teething.
Use the pull off and put down technique. If your baby is older than 1 year - when she bites, immediately pry her off the breast and put her down. Don't do this in a punitive way, but rather matter-of-factly. You want her to make the connection: biting while nursing equals an end to nursing for now.
Try the jaw pull-down. As soon as she starts biting, take your index finger of your free hand, place it just below her lower lip, and gently press down on her chin. This will greatly lessen the biting pressure.
For additional information on biting and breastfeeding see:
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler [book]
If My Baby Bites [full length article]
La Leche League: What Should I do if Baby Bites?
Australian Breastfeeding Association: Biting and Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding Basics: Teething and Biting
KellyMom: When Baby Bites