Biting is a very common behavior among toddlers, which means that there are a lot of concerned parents out there. Countless children between the ages of 1 and 3 go through a biting phase, which they eventually outgrow. Even though the act of biting is a normal process of growth and most children stop biting on their own, it is still a behavior that parents should address and discourage. Parents with children in this age group should be prepared to hear that their child may have been bitten, or has bitten another child. Even though it is very upsetting for parents, the child who bit, and the child who was bitten, it is important to understand why it may have happened.
Children bite in order to cope with a challenge or to fulfill a need. For example, your child may be biting to express a strong feeling like frustration, to communicate a need for personal space, or to satisfy a need for oral stimulation. Trying your best to understand the underlying cause of the biting will help you to develop an effective response. This makes it more likely that you will be successful in eliminating the behavior.
In toddlers, this phase is often due to teething, when children are more likely to explore their environment with their mouths. In older children, it is sometimes deliberately aggressive. Although such incidents may occur most frequently at school (when children are together in groups), parents can also take action by implementing some positive parenting techniques at home.
Children bite for a number of reasons and most of them are not intentionally malicious.
- They are in pain. When infants or young toddlers bite, typically it is because they are teething. They are just doing it to relieve the pain of their swollen, tender gums.
- They are exploring their world. Very young children use their mouths to explore, just as they use their hands. Just about everything infants or toddlers pick up eventually winds up in their mouths. Children in this stage are not yet able to prevent themselves from biting the object of their interest.
- They are looking for a reaction. Part of exploration is curiosity. Toddlers experiment to see what kind of reaction their actions will provoke. They will bite down on a friend or sibling to hear the surprised exclamation, not realizing how painful the experience is for that person.
- They are craving attention. In older children, biting may be just one of several choices used to get attention. When a child feels ignored, discipline is at least one way of getting noticed – even if the attention is negative rather than positive.
- They are frustrated. Biting, like hitting, is a way for some children to assert themselves when they are still too young to express feelings effectively through using their words. To your child, biting is a way to get back a favorite toy, to tell you that he or she is unhappy, or to let another child know that he or she wants to be left alone.
Children older than 3 years of age may occasionally be involved in a biting incident. For children in this age group who bite, parents should observe the child to determine what provokes or elicits this inappropriate behavior. If your child is a toddler or preschooler, helping them realize that their actions may cause pain to the other person may also help them break this habit.
Now that we may understand some of the reasons behind biting, we can look at what we can do to change this behavior. There is a lot that parents and caregivers can do to reduce and ultimately eliminate biting.
- Provide items to bite, such as teething rings or clean, wet, cold washcloths stored in the refrigerator. This helps children learn what they can bite safely, without hurting anyone else.
- Be sure your behavior expectations are age-appropriate and individually appropriate for your child. Expecting a child to do something he or she is not able to do can cause children to feel stress. Stress can lead to biting.
- Make sure your child’s schedule, routines, and transitions are predictable and consistent. At meals and bedtimes, try to do things in the same way and at the same times. Young children thrive when they know what will happen next.
- Offer activities and materials that allow your child to relax and release tension. Some children like yoga or deep breathing. Offer playdough, foam balls, bubbles, soft music, and other stress-reducing items.
- Observe your child to learn where, when, and in what situations biting occurs. Sometimes an adult may need to stay close to the child to prevent biting. Pay attention to signals and step in if your child seems ready to bite.
- Suggest acceptable ways to express strong feelings. Help your child learn to communicate wants and needs.
- Use a reminder system to help your child learn to express strong feelings with appropriate words and actions.
- Use positive guidance strategies to help your child develop self-control. For example, offer gentle reminders, phrased in a way that tells them what behaviors are expected.
- Provide opportunities for your child to make choices and feel empowered.
- Offer foods with a variety of textures to meet your child’s sensory needs.
- Teach your child words for setting limits, such as “no,” “stop,” or “that’s mine.”
We should always remember that learning a new behavior takes time. It is important to keep your own feelings in check before addressing an incident like this. When a toddler bites, you might feel frustrated, embarrassed, and worried. All of these feelings are normal, but responding when you are in an intense emotional state is usually not a good idea. So calm yourself before you respond, take a deep breath, and then try to communicate with your child. This phase too shall pass.