Toddlers Who Bite
Mortifying. Picking up your toddler from daycare and learning your offspring bit a friend at school can be just that. Biting phases are completely normal in child development, but what exactly causes toddlers to bite? And what is the best way for parents to handle their toddler’s biting or being bitten by another child?
Biting is common between 1-1/2 and 3 years old, because toddlers are still trying to develop social skills and empathy. Reasons for biting include oral exploration, frustration, lack of language skills, overstimulation, boredom, hunger and the curiosity of the cause and effect.
What to Do:
Find the triggers.
Toddlers will bite repeatedly, so parents and caregivers must watch for patterns of what triggers their child to bite. Is she biting the same child each time? Does it happen when she is at daycare or at home? Is it over a shared toy? Much easier said than done, finding the triggers means you easily can remove your child from the situation before she has a chance to bite.
Prevent the bite from happening.
Ways to avoid biting include supervising toddler activity, giving positive praise and avoiding games that mimic biting.
If you see a biting trigger, try to distract your child with a different toy or a book. If he is looking for oral stimulation, offer something to chew on like a teething toy.
Teach tots to use their words.
Courtney Corbet, mother and former parent educator from St. Joseph, MO, says it’s important to give your toddler tools when it comes to socializing. Empower the victim to say, “No, that hurts,” or the biter to say, “I want that toy.” Corbet says, “Modeling is a powerful tool for toddlers, and they need help from us when learning how to interact with their peers.”
Read books about biting.
Several children’s books are available to help teach young children not to bite.
Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick, Little Dinos Don’t Bite by Michael Dahl and No Biting by Karen Katz all discuss the topic of biting in a way that is relatable to toddlers.
What to do after the bite.
Corbet suggests comforting the victim first, then addressing the biting. Once a child has bitten, calmly remove him from the area and tell him, “No, biting hurts. You will not bite others.” Once children see they do not receive special attention (even negative) when they bite, they are less likely to continue the behavior. Once they have calmed down, have them say they are sorry to the child they bit.
“Just like with other toddler behaviors, it’s important to respond consistently and in the realm of their social and emotional development,” says Corbet.
Communicate with your caregivers.
Biting occurs often in childcare centers. If your child has been biting or is the victim, speak to her caregiver about the triggers you’ve noticed and help come up with ways to prevent it from happening again. Sometimes a simple fix like having a snack a bit earlier, more consistency in the daily schedule or offering a safe teether can alleviate the issue.
Seek additional help.
If your child is still biting after turning 3 years old, Corbet suggests consulting your pediatrician. “Typically, after 3 we expect social skills and the ability to handle some stress,” she says.
What NOT to do:
Don’t teach to bite back.
If your child is the victim, do not tell him to bite back the other child. He will only learn to bite and use other forms of violence when he is hurt or frustrated instead of dealing with his emotions in a healthy way.
Don’t shame the child.
“Avoid shaming and being reactive yourself,” says Corbet. “It’s tough, but if parents can find their calm, then comfort the victim first, it can be a great display of nurturing.”
Reacting in a negative, aggressive or shameful manner can actually increase biting incidents, because it increases your child’s worry. Also, be careful how you refer to your child. Labeling your child a “biter” can cause your child to think negatively of himself.
Regan Lyons is a freelance writer who lives in St. Joseph, MO, with her husband and 4-year-old daughter.
As always, please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns.