Ouch! What to Do When Your Baby Tugs, Scratches, or Bites During Breastfeeding

What to Do When Your Baby Bites During Breastfeeding - Illustration by Alison Czinkota

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

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Breastfeeding can be a hugely rewarding experience. But it doesn’t always go as planned. Supply issues, sore nipples, plugged milk ducts, and mastitis (inflammation in breast tissue that sometimes leads to infection) are some of the challenges nursing parents face.

Or, perhaps it’s your little bundle of joy who’s causing the problem. Some babies bite, scratch, and tug during breastfeeding—and it can be pretty painful. Here’s how to deal with this unwanted behavior. 

What to Do If Your Baby Bites

Many infants will bite towards the end of a feed when they become bored and want to play, says Lindsey Shipley, RN (labor & delivery), IBCLC, childbirth educator, and founder of Lactation Link. She recommends paying close attention during feeds to allow you to recognize this playful behavior coming on and stop the feed before biting occurs. 

International board-certified lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE, concurs and suggests the following: “Take your baby off the breast and try not to make a big deal or react dramatically, as this can either scare them or make it a fun game which could potentially cause more biting."

Instead, turn your baby’s attention to a book or toy, as long as you’re sure they’ve gotten what they need from the feed. “Don’t be alarmed if your infant wants to ‘snack’ (shorter, more frequent feedings) more during the teething period,” Shipley adds. 

Another way to deal with biting is to tell your baby “no, no, no.” But again, avoid yelling or startling them. 

“Baby can come back to breast after this, but if the biting continues, break the suction, say ‘no, no, no,’ three times, set your baby down somewhere safe, and walk away for a minute or two,” says Shipley. “When you return, talk to your baby, letting them know that biting hurts, and you can’t feed when they bite. With consistency, this should do the trick!”

What to Do If Your Baby Scratches

If your baby gets a little scratch-happy with those little fingernails during feeds, O’Connor suggests holding your baby’s hands or giving them an object to fiddle with, such as a scarf or thick necklace.

Plus, though baby fingernails may be tiny, they can be super sharp. Shipley recommends keeping them short, using baby clippers or a trimmer. "Mittens aren't the best idea because babies need to use their hands to explore their environment and develop their sensorimotor skills," she adds. 

What to Do If Your Baby Twiddles or Tugs

It's not just the nipple your baby is feeding on that they may tug at; they might tug or grab your other breast, too. This could involve flicking and playing with the nipple—known as nipple twiddling. For a first-time nursing parent, it can be a strange experience. But it's not uncommon.

There’s not a lot of research about twiddling, but some people believe that it helps increase breast milk production and let-down speed (i.e. how quickly or slowly the breast releases milk). "Infants will naturally tug on and knead your breast to help milk flow," says Shipley. This might explain why older babies are more likely to twiddle—they're hungrier and want to release more milk.

Another explanation for twiddling is simply comfort. It's a form of physical contact, and the nipple is within easy access for a nursing baby.

"A simple way to avoid tugging and twiddling is to cover the breast your infant isn't feeding on," says O'Connor. You could also try wearing a silicone teething necklace, or attach their favorite toy to your shirt with a clip to give them something else to tug on, suggests Shipley.

When a child stops breastfeeding, they tend to stop the unwanted behavior. But sometimes it continues—even when the child is older. "If a toddler is biting or scratching, try holding their hands and telling them, 'That hurts Mommy, please don’t do it,'" says O'Connor.  

Repetition is important, she adds, so you may have to say this over and over until it sinks in. "If the behavior persists, you can take the child into another room—a change of atmosphere or distraction can help," O'Connor explains.

When Breastfeeding Is Just Too Uncomfortable

While breastfeeding can be enjoyable for many parents, it's not always easy—and there are no guarantees. If you don't feel comfortable breastfeeding your baby, whether that's due to their behavior or other challenges, it's absolutely fine to stop. There are many other ways to bond with your baby, from bottle feeding to skin-to-skin contact to simply resting in bed together. If you still want to feed your baby breast milk, you could pump and feed them from a bottle.

If you want to continue to breastfeed, Shipley suggests changing things up a little. "Try new positions or environments, or breastfeeding with your baby in a carrier or during a bath," she says. "As your baby grows their needs may change a little bit, so trying something new (but easy) may do the trick."

If you have soreness or breakdown on your nipples that makes latching tricky or even impossible, you should see a lactation consultant to help put together a care plan specific to your goals, situation, and medical history.  

A Word From Verywell

Many new nursing parents worry about their ability to breastfeed, and everyone's concerns are different. Perhaps your baby isn't latching onto your nipple, making feeding uncomfortable. Or you might struggle to nurse on-demand due to your work schedule.

You might not have considered how your baby's behavior during breastfeeding could impact your experience. But if your little one scratches, bites, or twiddles, you're not alone. As babies grow, they can develop new behaviors and habits. As with all aspects of parenting, it's an ongoing learning curve.

Whatever your worries are, it helps to talk—to your healthcare provider, a local breastfeeding group, an online support group, or a family member or friend that has their own experiences of breastfeeding.

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2 Sources
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  1. Office on Women's Health. Common breastfeeding challenges.

  2. Child Care Quarterly. Sensorimotor development: Hands-on activities for infants and toddlers. Spring 2014.