No one wants to be that parent. The one with the biter. Out of all the undesirable behaviors very young children can display, biting is the one viewed with particular disdain. We know a bite can be painful, and a nasty one can break the skin, sometimes requiring professional medical treatment.
While biting is considered normal behavior for a toddler to engage in, a child who bites will not be popular in a social setting. They can quickly end up labeled a “bully” or a “menace,” and many toddlers have even been kicked out of daycare centers or preschools for biting other children.
In addition, when children are bitten, their parents can instinctively react very strongly in an effort to protect their tot. It may be an understandable response, but one that can leave the parent of the biting child feeling deeply embarrassed, ashamed, and judged.
Fortunately, there are some simple strategies for addressing toddler biting and minimizing the likelihood of these unpleasant incidents occurring.
Why do toddlers bite?
Knowing how to respond to a child’s biting begins with understanding the reasons behind this act. When we view behavior as communication, it is easier to explore in depth the root causes of a child’s behavior. A toddler may bite because they are teething or need oral-motor stimulation. They may do it to feel in control of a stressful situation or engage in it as an act of self-defense when they feel victimized or threatened. There are also times when a toddler bites simply to get a reaction, and this is a developmentally appropriate method for exploring cause and effect.
While a wide range of factors can contribute to toddler biting, in most cases, the child will bite because they are experiencing negative feelings, such as anger or frustration. During these early years, a child’s communication skills are still developing, which means that young children are often unable to effectively communicate their wants, needs, and feelings to a caregiver. Through this phase, they are developing a sense of identity and have lots of big ideas and feelings that they want to express. Without the language skills to do this verbally, toddlers can at times express themselves in undesirable ways, such as hitting, screaming, or biting.
There are also times in a child’s life when biting might suddenly appear due to some change in their world. The birth of a sibling, a new caregiver, or a house move are all situations that can cause stress and anxiety in a child, so it’s not uncommon for them to display behaviors like biting in such circumstances.
Although biting isn’t pleasant to deal with, we do know that in most cases, a child will stop biting as their language skill improves, and they can express their wants and needs more effectively. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the period between a child’s 1st and 2nd birthday is the typical age for biting. It might be a stressful time for parents and carers, but there is hope in knowing that it is only a phase to outgrow.
How do we stop toddler biting?
It is important for parents and caregivers to recognize that toddlers need to express their frustrations, fears, and upsets. A toddler expressing their feelings through biting is not a “bad” child, nor is the parent doing a “bad job.” Biting is common in the toddler years and having a child who bites is certainly not an indicator of poor parenting.
Trying to guess the reasons for this behavior can help in predicting future situations where it is more likely to occur. That being said, it can be extremely difficult to figure out these reasons when the child doesn’t have the communication skills to articulate them. Fortunately, we don’t need all the information in order to respond.
When it comes to biting, an immediate response is necessary. It’s important for the parent or carer to remain calm but firm. Keep it simple and be sure to tell the child that biting hurts. It’s also essential to follow this by directing your attention to the person bitten and providing comfort and first aid if necessary.
Some toddlers might find environments like daycare more stressful and only bite while there, showing none of that tendency in the familiar surroundings of their home. In these circumstances, the carers can be sensitive to the child’s feelings and needs and try to prevent situations that might heighten the child’s anxiety levels.
Toddlers don’t always understand that biting hurts, so it may shock them to realize that they have hurt someone. Remember that it is ok to comfort the biter and help them deal with their feelings if they’re upset after the biting incident.
When it comes to a biting toddler, here are a few strategies that might be helpful in keeping this behavior to a minimum:
- Pay attention to the child’s signals. Take note of what is happening before and during a biting incident and look for common themes or triggers to be mindful of.
- Provide your child with opportunities to make choices and feel empowered.
- Offer sensory toys to help meet your child’s oral-sensory needs.
- Suggest and model appropriate ways of dealing with strong emotions (e.g., “Noah, I can see that you didn’t like it when Ava took the toy you were playing with. Can you ask for it back?”).
- Teach your child words that help set limits, such as “stop” and “no.”
What responses are not helpful?
There are some strategies that can do more harm than good when it comes to dealing with biting. Here are a few things you should steer clear of:
- Avoid getting angry at a child or shaming them for biting. This doesn’t help them manage the emotions underlying and causing the behavior.
- Refrain from labeling the child a “biter” as such terms can foster a negative view of the child and cause them to feel bad about themselves.
- Never bite a child back when they have bitten someone else. This sends a message to them that biting is acceptable and can make matters worse.
However you decide to respond to a biting toddler, it’s important to be consistent. Using positive reinforcement is an effective strategy for preventing biting in the first place, so try to praise the child for their good behavior using language along the lines of “I like how you’re playing gently.”
While biting is common with babies and toddlers, it should stop by the time a child is 3 or 4 years old. If yours is still biting by this age, and it seems to be getting worse rather than better, discuss some other ways of dealing with it with your pediatrician.
Throughout toddlerhood, a child can display all kinds of behaviors that are perplexing and stressful for parents and caregivers. Whether it be a toddler who hits, throws tantrums, or bites, these behaviors can be tough to deal with. By focusing on the fact that biting is an age-appropriate behavior, parents can respond rather than react and help their toddler stop biting.
Ultimately, just like hitting and tantrums, biting commonly occurs in the toddler years. So, it’s important for parents and caregivers to be reassured that, in most cases, this is an age-appropriate phase that toddlers will grow out of. If you’re currently dealing with a biting toddler, you are most certainly not alone. But hey, this too shall pass…