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Toddler Tips

Beware of the Biter

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22, No. 3 May-June 2005 pp. 112-114

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter nurses a couple of times a day. My favorite thing is breastfeeding her to sleep at naptime. Unfortunately, often when she falls asleep, she clenches her teeth and it's very hard to take her off the nipple without being bitten. Breaking the suction isn't enough, and when I try putting my finger between her teeth to open them, I usually end up with a badly bitten finger! No one in my LLL Group has had this problem and we're out of ideas. It's been going on for months and my poor fingers need relief! Any ideas?

Mother's Response

How frustrating for you! It's bad enough to get a bitten finger, but to have a bitten nipple is really painful—I've been there! My first child did the same thing. He clamped down anytime he felt me breaking the suction. After a few bites, I decided enough was enough and had him checked by a child-friendly chiropractor.

We found out that his jaw had a slight misalignment and was not lining up properly. There's a lot of pressure coming through this joint and can bring on problems if misaligned, including a clicking jaw, biting, grinding teeth, headaches, and sinus problems. The misalignment was corrected with a minor adjustment of the jaw. It wasn't painful and I could tell he felt better after—and so did I. We never had the clamping down problem again. He's no longer nursing, but we still have his jaw checked occasionally at appointments. Some cranial work has been necessary at times in addition to the jaw work. Again, this doesn't hurt and is much less invasive than some of the more traditional methods of correction I've investigated.

I highly recommend finding a very child/family friendly chiropractor in your area. I'd look for one who is a Breastfeeding Resource Center member first because this demonstrates their belief in the breastfeeding relationship. You know the doctor has great breastfeeding information.

Angi Moss
Ankeny IA USA

Mother's Response

My 16-month-old does the exact same thing! I'm always surprised at how tightly his jaw is clenched and that I don't even notice until I try to move away. I have a few tricks that sometimes work. Instead of trying to break suction, I gently but firmly pull down the corner of his mouth (into a one-sided frown). The pressure is just annoying enough to cause him to let go of my nipple, but not annoying enough to wake him up.

Another thing that works is to press two fingers gently but firmly into the side of his cheek where his teeth come together. I don't touch his mouth, I just put pressure on the outside of his cheek. I have also had success by pulling back from him slightly so that my nipple is stretching away from him, but not so much that it is painful to me. This will either make him let go and turn away, or move his head forward for a better grip. If these tricks do not work, I wait five minutes. Sometimes he just needs a little more time to finish up.

A last resort is to roll over with him on my chest and kind of let him drop away to my other side. Gravity usually does the trick to make him unclench with this method.

Molly Remer
Rolla MO USA

Mother's Response

All three of my children have had the same habit of locking their jaws when they fall asleep breastfeeding. I know the desperation and agony it causes! I used to put my fingers into their mouths, too, particularly with my first child, until I came up with a much easier solution. I find that gently pinching the child's nostrils closed will cause her to automatically open her mouth, usually without even waking up. It also works well for removing a reluctant, awake, toddler from the breast when necessary.

Janine Condi
Penacook NH USA

Mother's Response

My toddler also clenches his teeth when he falls asleep at naptime. To break the grip on my breast, I take my thumb and pull back the corner of his mouth. When he lets go, I am able to pull my nipple out. Sometimes this causes him to back away a little, acting startled. When this happens, I pull him close and cuddle him to keep him asleep. This also gives us a little extra snuggle time, too. I hope you are able to continue enjoying this special time together.

Sara Poirier
Austin TX USA

Mother's Response

After my son became a toddler, he began clamping down or suddenly biting in his sleep. Trying to get him to let go just made him clench his jaw tighter. It was frightening to nurse him to sleep. Paying very close attention to his sucking patterns helped me. I found that, as he falls asleep, his sucking pattern changes. First, he sucks continuously, then, off and on with pauses that are several seconds long. Finally, he stops sucking for longer periods. This is when he tends to clamp down the most and I'm likely to get a terrible bite. The safe time to take him off the breast is during the stage of intermittent sucking. I wait until the pattern is established, then take him off the breast quickly and carefully during one of the pauses. Learning his rhythms has taken away my fear of breastfeeding him to sleep. If you observe your daughter's rhythms as she drifts off to sleep, you may be able to find a good time for taking her off the breast. Good luck!

Betsy Johnson
Moscow ID USA

Mother's Response

I have a 22-month-old daughter who also clenches her teeth onto my nipple when she falls asleep. I can usually predict when it's about to happen. She gives me a “test” nip so I know it’s coming. I have also noticed that she is most likely to clench down when she’s drifting quickly and deeply to sleep or when she’s past due for a nap.

To prevent a painful bite, I use my finger to release her from the breast just before she is ready to clench, but I usually get a little nipped anyway. The other thing I do is pull her off right before she drifts into a deep sleep and just hold her or stand up and sway with her to help her fall back to sleep. Maybe instead of your finger you could use something else as a tool to gently break the suction, such as the handle of a clean toothbrush or something along those lines. I know that this time will pass soon enough and become just a memory, so I take the good with the not so good. When she stops breastfeeding, I’m going to really miss it.

Karen Tykac
Sandwich IL USA

Last updated Thursday, October 19, 2006 by njb.
Page last edited .


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