Biting the hand that feeds you!

As I settled down to tuck into my first (but very much NOT my last) mince pie of the Christmas season, a message pinged into my WhatsApp folder like a cheery little festive jingle. “Help!” … all my work messages start that way … “My 8 month old baby has started biting me when I feed her. What can I do?”

Another bite of mince pie and a glug of sherry (come on – it was Christmas!) to ease me into my reply and another message popped up, this time by Email, saying exactly the same thing. One sure way to ruin your mother’s Christmas? Take a hearty chunk out of her nipple!

Some babies are born with teeth: little razor-like pearls peeping out of pink gums. Most babies, however, get their first teeth some time between months 4 and 7 with the two bottom front teeth being the first to push their way through. After the two bottom front teeth come the two front top teeth and then, as time goes on, the gaps fill in.

As soon as your baby starts dribbling a lot, around the 2 to 3 month mark, the world and its mother will tell you that “she’s teething”. In fact, dribbling starts with babbling and coo-ing: extra saliva is produced to moisten the tongue, lips and gums for vocalisation and babies take time to learn how to keep the extra drool in their mouths. For at least a year and a half, any excess saliva simply escapes out of their mouth and covers your clean clothes just seconds after you’ve got dressed in the morning. There will be another increase in saliva production around the 5-6 month mark in preparation for starting family foods.

Having said that, you might notice EVEN more dribbling when a tooth is erupting but, given that the amount of dribbling in the baby over 3 months is so big, you’d be unwise to place a bet. Some babies do get a hot, red cheek, swollen gums, and an irresistible urge to gnaw on things when cutting a tooth but, more often than not, the first tooth appears some time after all teething symptoms have disappeared and you’ve stopped checking. There is no evidence that teething causes diarrhoea or a temperature so, if your baby seems unwell, see a doctor.

So, having admired the first pearly white, bought the first toothbrush and sickly-flavoured baby toothpaste, you’ll quickly realise that, because the tongue covers the bottom gum during feed times, boobling remains perfectly pain-free. And then one day …

She is boobling quite happily whist you catch up with your favourite Netflix box set. Just as you take a slurp of tea, your sweet little “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” baby pulls her tongue back and delivers a killer bite! You yank her off, yelling uncontrollably, tear at your shirt to inspect the damage (you just know that you’ll be missing a nipple now) and, at the same time, plonk your bemused child unceremoniously on the floor.

Satisfied that you still have two decorative nipples gracing your boobs, you’re suddenly drawn back to your nipper who is lying desolate on the floor, looking heartbroken and crying REAL TEARS! Guilt sears your soul and you grab her back into your arms, profuse with apologies, and plant her firmly back on the other boob.

Given the visible, and audible, shock that your little boobler experienced when she saw and heard you completely lose your rag, why then does she repeat the experience before the day is out? Surely she won’t want another heartbreak? How can you continue to booble your baby whilst preserving your nipples?

Not many babies bite the boob when their teeth first emerge but most do so eventually and it is tricky to know what causes that first chomp. In truth, the why does not matter overmuch. You simply want to know how to stop it before you become nipple-less. Mums generally say that the bite occurs either as their little one tries to come off the boob, or as he nods off for a good boob-in-mouth doze. He seems to forget where he is for a moment. Away in a milk-drunk haze, he starts to fall off and then jolts awake and clamps down. It isn’t meant and it isn’t personal. It certainly isn’t naughtiness but it is painful.

The reason why most mum’s get into a pickle of being repeatedly bitten is actually very simple … lack of congruency.

Congruency means harmony. When it comes to giving our babies and children clear messages, if we are not totally congruent, we can cause confusion and the message can be misunderstood.

Imagine that you have just bought a new outfit. You are thrilled to bits with your purchase and decide to show it off to your partner. “What d’you think?” you ask cheerily. Your partner looks you up and down, tightens their shoulders, furrows their brow, winces and then says, “Lovely!” in a tone of voice that says “It stinks!” You look crestfallen as you wail, “I thought you’d like it.” “I just said it was lovely didn’t I?” You know this conversation, we’ve all had them. Your partner maintains that, because they said the outfit was lovely, surely you should be delighted. What’s the point in you asking their opinion if nothing they say is right? You know that, no matter how much they protest, there is no doubt what was meant. Your partner was saying one thing, but everything about their face, body language and tone of voice said quite another.

We are essentially pre-verbal for many years. Sure we learn to talk our mother tongue from the first year but, long after we start to speak we continue to rely on the non-verbal cues to get us through a conversation safely. Indeed, as the scenario above demonstrates, even as adults, when there is a mismatch between the words and the body cues and tone, we will “go with” our first language: the non-verbal.

You think your baby understands every word you say, but he doesn’t. He is a master of the non-verbal and, if you give him a mixed message, he will go with the unspoken. So when your little baby sits howling on the floor whilst you tend to your poor, nipped nip, and you, overcome with guilt, turn your horror to a ready smile, soften your yell to a song and draw that rosebud mouth back to the scene of the crime with a warm apology, it is little wonder that you get nipped again. The message you have given has been, “Sorry poppet! My mistake! It’s perfectly fine to do that bitey thing. All’s fine now, carry on …”

Next time you get even the faintest hint of an impending bite, take your little one off quickly with a look that says, “No you don’t!” Bring her back in gingerly ensuring that your message is clear, “Go steady, sweetie. Mum’s nipples are a no-bite area”. If you’re too late and the teeth get there before you can swipe her off, do the honest thing: take her off, fast, and say as loudly as your poor nipple asks you to, “NO!” Don’t sugar-coat this with an apologetic smile or a tone of voice that says, “Gosh, what a busy day we’re having!” Be congruent. And when your nipper howls at being put on the floor whilst you tend to your own trauma, sort yourself out and then pick her up as nervously as you feel. Let your face show your anxiety as you tell her, “No biting!” No need for theatrical screaming. The tone of your voice, the look on your face and the hesitancy in your subsequent pick-up will be perfectly adequate.

Our babies and children need clear, un-muddled messages if they are to keep themselves from getting things wrong. Our children want to please us; they are desperate to learn how to get things right and we can help them, and ourselves, by just saying what we mean and meaning what we say.

NOTE: There seems to be a fashion on some social media breastfeeding groups for suggesting pulling a biting baby firmly into the breast to close off the nose and prevent breathing until the baby has no option but to let go. This is thought to frighten the baby enough to prevent further biting. This is unkind and potentially dangerous. It teaches your baby nothing about how we naturally deal with a hurt and sets a bad example to any older child watching of how to manage a biting baby. Just don’t ever do this!

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.