When a family hears that their child has been biting, it can be very upsetting and concerning. Some families may be surprised to learn that biting is a typical behavior for infants, toddlers and two-year olds and eventually will outgrow the behavior. 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.
Why Do Children Bite?
A child may bite to express that they are feeling frustrated or to satisfy a need for oral stimulation, such as teething. Some children bite because they are bored, some bite because they are overstimulated or tired. Whatever it may be, children bite in order to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need. At such a young age, they do not have the language skills to express their feelings, so biting becomes how they communicate. It is important to understand the number of reasons why children bite, so that families can react appropriately and become more successful in helping their child outgrow the behavior.
Here are a few reasons why children bite:
- 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 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.
- 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.
How Do You Encourage a Child to Stop Biting?
One important thing to keep in mind when encountering a situation where your child is biting is to remain calm and to reiterate to them that the behavior is unacceptable. There are also a lot of options that parents and caregivers can try to prevent, 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.
- 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.
- 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.”