Every parent of a toddler and every adult who works with toddlers dreads hearing the word biter. Whether your child is biting, is being bitten, or you take care of a child who bites, you likely react very strongly to this behavior.
In reality, biting is a very common behavior in toddlers. It’s estimated that as many as 75 percent of toddlers bite at some time. It seems more common when toddlers are in group-care situations, probably because there are more kids to interact with. Biting can be a one-time event or a behavior that occurs daily over several months. Toddlers bite parents, other adults, siblings, other children and sometimes even themselves.
If biting is so typical, what is it about biting that gets adults worked up? If another child hit or pinched your child, you would probably not react in the same way as when another child bites your child, even though these behaviors have the same motivation. But biting really hurts and it often leaves a mark and can even break the skin. Human bites also carry a risk of infection. When a child hits, it is a one strike attack; when a child bites, he or she may hang on! Adults often think of biting as an animal-like behavior.
Let’s think about toddlers. A few short months ago, they were infants and their mouths were their first way of learning. They spent a lot of time using their mouths to get nourishment, and they would sometimes bite the breast or bottle in exploration. Everything they encountered went into their mouths. In their short lives, toddlers have observed others use their mouths to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. Did you ever kiss your toddler? Blow a raspberry on his or her tummy? Use your mouth to nuzzle your baby’s neck? Pretend to “eat” your baby’s toes? Many experts say that for a toddler a bite is just the flip side of a kiss. It is using your mouth to communicate when you don’t yet have the words you need.
Toddlers Bite for Many Reasons
- Toddlers are getting big teeth. Molars and eye teeth are erupting, and this can be painful. It would make sense that they are more focused on their mouths during this time.
- Toddlers are trying to predict what will happen in the world. Yesterday, Annie was nuzzling her dad’s neck and got a little carried away and bit him. When he jumped and yelled, she was fascinated by this response. Now she may repeat biting to see if the same thing will happen. When Joey bit his friend at day care, his friend screamed and the caregivers came running over. It was pretty exciting! Joey may seek out this particular friend as his biting target to see if the response will be the same. Toddlers are like scientists, developing hypotheses and testing them over and over.
- Toddlers lack language skills to express their needs and wants. Add this to the fact that they are egocentric and don’t understand the needs and feelings of others yet, and you have the perfect recipe for aggression. If Ava wants her friend’s toy, is using her hands to grab it, and can’t express what she wants with words, the only things left to make her point may be her teeth.
- Toddlers bite to get attention. Sometimes biting is a rudimentary way of saying, “Hi! Here I am! Look at me!” They really aren’t trying to be aggressive at all.
- Toddlers bite when they are over-stimulated. Some toddlers bite when there is too much noise or commotion, or when their personal space is invaded. Adults should be especially cautious when several toddlers are in close confines like in a play fort or tunnel.
- Toddlers bite when they are over-excited. When Kyle saw his friend Aiden arrive at day care, he was so excited that he ran over to him and gave him a crushing hug. Unfortunately, Kyle got a little carried away, and his hug turned into a bite.
- Toddlers bite when they have unmet physical needs. Toddlers may bite if they are hungry, tired, need physical activity or just need something to chew on.
- Some toddlers are professional victims. Sometimes these little people are so interested in predicting another child’s response, that they will actually plant themselves in front of a known biter, daring them to bite in order to confirm this theory!
What to Do About Biting
First of all, if your child is the victim, try to be understanding to your care provider and to the parent of the biter. Next week, it might be your child who is biting. A toddler who bites does not have a behavior problem, is not a mean child, is not a bully, and should not be excluded from the day care or playgroup. It is also NOT reasonable to expect the biter’s parent to punish him or her at home. By the time he or she gets home, a toddler may not even remember the biting episode, much less the reason or how he or she felt at the time. Biting is usually short lived. Once a child has tested his or her hypotheses enough times, has started getting the message that biting is not OK, and has developed some language skills, biting will decrease.
- Look for patterns in biting behavior. Keep track of when a child bites, who was bitten, the time of day, and what the circumstance was. This may show patterns that can help prevent biting. If Diego is consistently biting half an hour before lunch, does he need a little snack to stave off hunger? If Meesha keeps biting her neighbor at circle time, does she need more space or an adult to sit with her? Keeping track of biting incidents will also give you encouragement when you see them start to decline.
- Give toddlers words to help them express their needs and wants. For example, tell your toddler to say, “No! I don’t like that!” “Can I use that when you are done?” or “I’m playing with this now,” instead of biting.
- Give a message that biting is not OK. When a child bites, tell him or her in a strong voice, without being too harsh, that biting will not be tolerated. For instance, “I don’t like biting! Biting hurts!” or “I won’t let you bite!” Shift your attention to the victim. If a child is biting for attention, too much focus on the biting might cause it to increase.
- Give the child a time out. Use a short time out if appropriate, while you tend to the victim. You want the child to begin to understand that biting takes time away from friends and play. When time out is over, say something positive like, “I care about you and I want you to touch your friends gently.” Show the child how to pat a friend on the back, give a high five or blow a kiss to make contact. Try not to call attention to the biting again. If you say, “Are you ready to play without biting?” you may put the idea back in his or her head. A child who is in an intense biting phase should be supervised closely by an adult if possible. The adult can look for signs that a bite is about to happen and hopefully prevent it.
If your child is biting, you may get advice from someone to “bite the child back” so he or she learns how it feels. This is not logical. Are you going to hit, pinch or kick your child every time he or she does? By biting a child back, you give a message that, “I am bigger, so I can bite you” or that aggression is a way to solve problems — the exact ideas we are trying to dispel. It also is inappropriate to put something nasty in a child’s mouth, such as Tabasco sauce or soap, as a punishment for biting. A toddler is unlikely to make a connection between this punishment and biting. Whenever we use harsh punishment methods with toddlers, we are really punishing them for things they haven’t had time to learn yet.
We have dealt with many cases of biting in our careers. In almost all cases, biting decreases as the child matures and learns better skills. One of Doniese’s first jobs out of college was as a head teacher in a large day care center. In the toddler room, there was a little guy who would bite his friends on the ends of their noses! Almost every child in the room had a red, swollen nose with a bite mark on it! He got over it.
We want to point out that when you see biting in a child over the age of 4 this is a warning sign and is not considered typical behavior.
Watch for our upcoming blogs on activity ideas for kids. Sometimes activities that engage the senses can have a calming effect on toddlers, and may actually decrease biting. We’ll have lots of ideas for you.