The Pains of Nursing a Toddler

I wrote the following for MamaNook, where I’m a contributing editor.

My stomach and sides are covered in tiny little scratches.

My areolas have bite marks.

Nursing my toddler is not fun right now. That’s OK to admit, and it doesn’t mean I have to stop breastfeeding.

Violet, 16 months, is my third baby. A lot of people consider third kids to be the curveball — just when you think you’re experienced and you’ve got this motherhood gig figured out, they give you challenges the first two didn’t. That’s the case for us.

She’s feisty and has a huge personality. She’s quick to lose her temper, and instead of normal tantrums, she acts violent beyond her age, courtesy of having two older siblings who’ve shown her the ropes!

That means that when she’s teething (when isn’t she teething?!), or sick, my worn-out body gets the brunt of it. I’ve been bit by my other babies plenty of times, or pinched, or had them grab the breast they weren’t nursing from… but nothing like baby Vi. She loves to nibble my nipple and knead at my skin. Clipping her fingernails is a lot like bathing a cat, so it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should.

So, what’s a mom to do? As with my other kiddos, I try to teach empathy as early as possible. I don’t overdo it, and I try my hardest not to have my reaction be seen as funny, but I make tons of sad eye contact. I tell her, “Ow! That hurt Mama. Can you show me how you can be gentle?” I actually do that with any physical acts of aggression — at 16 months, she takes that as a cue to pet whoever she’s hurt. Before she learned that, I’d take her hand and physically make her pet me a little. Depending on her ability to stop and nurse pain-free, I may end the nursing session and give her something to chew on, like a cold veggie, popsicle, or toy.

Sometimes, especially when I’m caught off-guard, I’ll yell. Not yell at her, but yelp in pain because a surprise chomp to the nipple is its own circle of hell. Leigh Anne O’Connor, a lactation consultant who’s worked in the breastfeeding field for two decades, has a hilarious and helpful article about babies who bite here. “As he is feeling those incisors pushing through his flesh,” she writes, “nothing will soothe that sensation like biting down on something nice – like a breast!  Ouch!”

She and I can both assure you, though, that this shouldn’t be taken as a signal to wean. Sure, you can wean whenever you want, for whatever reason you’d like. But don’t misconstrue this phase as a definite ending to your breastfeeding relationship. It certainly doesn’t have to be, as the phase will pass.

How can you cope with this? Honestly, talk about it. Normalize it so you and moms around you don’t think you’ve got the only bitey baby. There’s strength in knowing you’re not the only one going through something hard.

If you need to, and/or are able to, pass the kiddo off to your partner or a support person after a bite episode so you can take some time to breathe. As immature as it sounds, it’s hard for me not to hold a bit of a grudge as the soreness of the bite wears off, and some time to myself is a nice remedy for those feelings.

If you know biting is likely to happen — if teeth are about to cut through, or baby has the sniffles — try to stop it before it starts. Treat the teething (teething oil, ibuprofen, chewing on a cold wash cloth, etc) or cold (suction their nose, use some eucalyptus rub) before you nurse.