One of the most DREADED behaviors my son, John, displayed while a toddler at Sunrise Montessori many moons ago was biting. How I hated hearing that he had bit another child. He did grow out of it, as all children do, but why did he do it and how did we prevent it from happening as parents?
Biting is a natural developmental stage that many children go through. It is usually a temporary condition that is most likely to occur in children between 1 to 3 years old. It can happen without warning, is difficult to defend against, and provokes strong emotional responses in the biter, the bitee, and the caregivers involved.
For many toddlers, the biting stage is just a passing phase. Toddlers try it out as a way to get what they want from another toddler. They are in the process of learning what is socially acceptable and what is not. The biter discovers that biting is a sure-fire way to cause the other child to drop what they are holding so they can pick it up or defend against what they perceive as aggressive behavior. Thankfully, they also experience the disapproval of the adults nearby and are told repeatedly to “use your words.” Eventually, the behavior is extinguished as they use language to express difficult feelings.
Did you know there are many types of biters?
The Experimental Biter: It is not uncommon for an infant or toddler to explore their world, including people, by biting. Infants and toddlers place many items in their mouths to learn more about them. Teach the child that some things can be bitten, like toys and food, and some things cannot be bitten, like people and animals. Another example of the Experimental Biter is the toddler who wants to learn about cause and effect. This child is wondering, ‘What will happen when I bite my friend or mommy?’ Provide this child with many other opportunities to learn about cause and effect, with toys and activities.
The Teething Biter: Infants and toddlers experience a lot of discomfort when they’re teething. A natural response is to apply pressure to their gums by biting on things. It is not unusual for a teething child to bear down on a person’s shoulder or breast to relieve some of their teething pain. Provide appropriate items for the child to teeth on, like frozen teething rings.
The Social Biter: Many times an infant or toddler bites when they are trying to interact with another child. These young children have not yet developed the social skills to indicate ‘Hi, I want to play with you.’ So sometimes they approach a friend with a bite to say hello. Watch young children very closely to assist them in positive interactions with their friends.
The Frustrated Biter (Most Common): Young children are often confronted with situations that are frustrating, like when a friend takes their toy or when Daddy is unable to respond to their needs as quickly as they would like. These toddlers lack the language and emotional skills to express and cope with their feelings in an acceptable way. They also lack the language skills to communicate their feelings. At these times, it is not unusual for a toddler to attempt to deal with the frustration by biting whoever is nearby, sometimes even herself. Notice when a child is struggling with frustration and be ready to intervene. It is also important to provide words for the child, to help him learn how to express his feelings, like “That’s mine!” or “No! Don’t push me!” And as you acknowledge their frustration, remind them that teeth are for eating, not for biting.
The Threatened Biter: When some young children feel a sense of danger they respond by biting as a self-defense. For some children biting is a way to try to gain a sense of control over their lives, especially when they are feeling overwhelmed by their environment or events in their lives. Provide the toddler with nurturing support, to help him understand that he and his possessions are safe.
The Attention-Seeking Biter: Children love attention, especially from adults. When parents give lots of attention for negative behavior, such as biting, children learn that biting is a good way to get attention. Provide lots of positive attention for young children each day. It is also important to minimize the negative attention to behaviors such as biting.
So what can you do to prevent biting and what should you do after it happens?
- Talk for your child by offering words like, “I see that you wanted that toy” followed by, “Teeth are for eating, not for biting.” Read them books on biting every day. We read these titles often at Sunrise: Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick, Little Dinos Don’t Bite by Michael Dahl, and No Biting by Karen Katz.
- Demonstrate patience and understanding for the frustration the child is experiencing.
- Offer solutions like, “We have another red truck right over here. Let’s go get it.”
- Comfort the child who was bitten. Immediately remove the child who bit from others and allow them to watch as you comfort the bitee. It is important that the child who was bitten is getting attention and NOT the biter in the first minute or two.
- Cleanse the wound with mild soap and water if needed. Provide an ice pack to reduce pain and swelling.
- Provide comfort for the bitten child by saying something like, “I bet that hurt. You don’t like it when your friend bites your arm.”
- Calmly approach the child who bit. Many times these children feel overwhelmed and afraid after they bite. Tell them, “Teeth are for eating, not for biting. Do you see how you hurt your friend?” Point out the other child’s emotional reaction to help them understand that it hurt the other child.
- When the environment is calm again, remind BOTH children what they can do to assert themselves, like “No!”, “Mine!” or “Back away!” The goal is to teach assertiveness and communication skills to both the child who bites and the child who gets bitten.
But what if you’ve tried all this and your child is still biting?
If biting becomes a habit for your child and what you’re doing and your child’s teacher is doing is not working, it is time to set up a meeting with your child’s teacher. Together, we can plan an approach for addressing the behavior that can be applied consistently at home and at school in order to help your child to replace biting with acceptable behaviors.
Once my son started to speak more confidently and gain social skills (and experience a lot of time outs), he was able to say “No!” when a child tried to take his toy instead of biting and his biting faded away. Encourage your child to “Use your words” and help them to say things like “No!” or “Mine!” to prevent biting. This phase, too, shall pass.
- “Biting in the Toddler Years,” issued as a newsletter by the Oklahoma State Department of Health