When Toddlers Bite: Why It Happens and What to Do
It catches you by surprise: That first chomp from your previously angelic little toddler didn’t really just happen; did it? Whether you witness it yourself or get the dreaded report from your day care, a biting incident is often embarrassing, alarming and frustrating for parents. Biting is a very normal behavior for toddlers, but it’s also something you want to discourage. Your little one must learn how to use healthier (and less painful) ways to deal with situations.
Why Toddlers Bite
What causes your sweet little tot to suddenly go into vampire mode? As painful as it is physically, biting is a toddler’s natural way of responding to various situations. Kids 3 and under can’t always express what they’re going through, and they don’t yet have the tools to deal with things any differently. So, they bite.
What might cause a toddler to bite? Some common reasons include:
- Frustration or anger
- Lack of communication skills to express needs
- Overstimulation from sounds or activities
- Excessive tiredness
- Teething or other pain sensations
- Need for oral stimulation
- Imitation of other kids
- Experimentation with cause and effect or simply exploring the environment
- Desire for attention
Looking at the situation surrounding your child’s biting habit can help you figure out what’s going on and how to stop it. Things to consider include the type of activity the child is engaged in, the other people around, events leading up to the bite, the location of the incident, and who is caring for your child. Consider who your child is biting. Is it always the same child, or is he an “equal opportunity biter”? Evaluate your child’s condition. Is he hungry or tired? All these factors and others can increase the likelihood of a biting incident.
What to Do When a Toddler Bites
No matter what causes your tot to bite, reacting quickly can help your child understand that biting is not OK. The way you react sets the tone for the experience. Avoid the temptation to scream or react in anger. Let your child know firmly that biting is not acceptable. Say, “We do not bite. Biting hurts.” Be very direct, clear and age-appropriate, so your child understands what you’re saying.
After addressing your child, focus on the person who was bitten. Comfort and show concern for the other child. Biting is often about getting attention, even if it’s negative. By focusing your energy on the other child, you show your child that biting is not the way to get attention.
Return to the conversation with your child after the situation is over. Reinforce the rule that biting is never allowed. Talk through the situation, and give your child alternative ideas for handling the situation in the future. You might say, “I know Chase took your toy, and that made you feel mad. But you do not bite. No biting. Biting hurts. Next time, tell Chase you want your toy back.”
How to Prevent Biting
Focus on preventing future biting incidents by monitoring the situation and changing some habits. Avoid situations and triggers that tend to cause biting. If your child’s biting peaks during afternoon play dates that fall during her naptime, stick to morning play dates instead. If she tends to chomp on people when she’s hungry and irritable, keep snacks on hand to keep her inner beast concealed.
Other ways to prevent biting include:
- Distract your child with a book or activity if you think biting is imminent.
- Talk your little one through upsetting situations. Say, “Daniel, can you tell Emma that you want your toy back?” By leading the situation, you teach your child a healthier way to handle challenging situations.
- Encourage sharing and taking turns. Developing this social skill can reduce the frustration that leads to biting.
- Emphasize empathy from a young age. Talk about how another child might feel in various situations.
- Give your tot a teething ring if the biting is a pain relief strategy for teething.
- Spending one-on-one time with your child may help prevent her biting to get attention.
- Do relaxing, age-appropriate activities, such as listening to soothing music or blowing bubbles, to release stress and tension.
- Provide calm downtime without TV, bright lights and other stimulating experiences if your child gets overwhelmed easily.
- Read books about not biting. Examples include “Teeth Are Not for Biting” by Elizabeth Verdick and “No Biting, Louise” by Margie Palatini.
- Praise your child for handling situations in ways other than biting.
What Not to Do
If your child likes to bite, you will get lots of advice from well-intentioned people. Some may suggest biting your child in return, but experts agree this is not the way to handle the situation. Never bite or hit your child when you’re trying to teach your child not to bite or hit. It’s confusing, counterproductive and unnecessarily painful for your little one. Plus, no evidence exists that it’s effective.
Shaming your child or giving harsh punishments are also bad ideas. Instead of discouraging the biting habits, those reactions cause fear and other negative emotions that can perpetuate the problem.
Avoid labeling your child as a biter. By giving the action a name, you reinforce the idea and connect it to your child’s identity. Your little one may actually live up to that label by holding onto the biting habit.
When to Get Help
You’ve exhausted your options, and your little one still chomps down on peers, siblings and anyone else within mouth’s reach. When do you ask for help?
Any time you’re feeling overwhelmed with your child’s behavior, it’s a good idea to check in with your pediatrician. Sometimes, you just need the reassurance of a medical professional to help you get through the situation.
Most kids outgrow biting somewhere around age 3. If your little one continues at 4 or 5, consult with your doctor. You also should call if your little one’s biting habit seems to get progressively worse instead of improving over time.