There are lots of unpleasant behaviours our young children will display over the course of their childhood, but biting — which not only can leave marks, bruises, and break the skin, but also freaking hurts — is one we all hope our kids will never adopt. Unfortunately, there’s a fairly good chance they’ll chomp down on someone at some point.
Not all toddlers bite, but it’s a common developmental stage in early childhood. Let’s talk about why, and what to do if it does occur.
Why toddlers bite
You may feel shocked — or embarrassed — the first time a daycare teacher pulls you aside to tell you that little Sammy bit a friend today, or your own arm might fall prey to their wrath when it’s time to leave the playground but they’d really rather stay. But it’s a fairly common way for kids to communicate their emotional needs before they have the words to express them.
Toddlers use their mouth to explore the world in all kinds of ways — it’s how they best get acquainted with new toys or other objects. That exploration may morph into full-on biting when a child wants to provoke a reaction, often not realising how painful it is for the person being bitten but feeling curiosity about the yelp they’re getting in response. Biting can also often be driven by the need for attention or as an emotional response to something that has happened, as the Nemours Foundation writes:
Frustration, anger, and fear are strong emotions and toddlers lack the language skills to communicate how they are feeling. So if they can’t find the words they need quickly enough or can’t say how they’re feeling, they may bite as a way of saying, “Pay attention to me!” or “I don’t like that!”
They’re likely to outgrow the behaviour as their language skills and emotional regulation skills develop, but still: It’s a habit you want to curb as quickly as possible.
How to react in the moment
When a toddler bites, it’s important to respond immediately and with a voice that is serious and firm — but also calm and non-threatening. Keep your phrases short and simple. (“No biting! Biting hurts.”) If they bit another child, immediately comfort that child and clean the area with soap and water.
If the biter becomes upset because they realise they’ve hurt someone, it’s ok to comfort them, too. Just be careful about giving too much attention if it seems they are biting in order to get that from you. If the child is not yet very verbal, distraction and redirection is usually the best course of action. If they are old enough to use their own words, you can coach them through more positive communication methods. As Sydni Ellis writes for PopSugar:
You can say something like, “No thank you! Use your words to say what you need,” Dr. [ Sarah Levin] Allen, [licensed pediatric neuropsychologist and executive director of Brain Behaviour Bridge] suggests. Or, you can give them the exact phrase to use, like “I want that toy please,” or “please stop hitting me,” and couple this with calm down time if necessary. “Then, review the skill, ‘You were asked to sit here because you bit your brother. Please say sorry to him . . . now tell me what you do instead of biting.’ The key to the plan is to find the first attempt at using his words in the future. Then add significant praise, ‘Great job using your words!’” Dr. Allen said.
Positive reinforcement whenever you see the behaviours and communication methods you do want to see is key. Kids crave your attention any way they can get it, but they’d much rather have the positive variety. So whenever you can, praise them for playing gently or using their words to encourage more of that type of behaviour in the future.
How to prevent it going forward
If the biting is starting to become a habit, try to pinpoint their specific triggers for the behaviour. When you know their common triggers, you can better plan ahead to avoid those situations completely or be more alert when they are occurring.
If they tend to bite during playdates, when they become overstimulated, or when they’re tired or hungry, keep a close eye on them during those moments so you can step in when you see any escalation. It can also be helpful to keep a log of what was happening in the moments before the bite to identify any patterns — the time of day, the activity, and whether they’d recently napped or eaten.
If the biting is happening primarily at a daycare or preschool, that’s much harder to track, especially if they’re in a classroom with multiple kids per adult. But you can still ask about the circumstances leading up to the incident and brainstorm ways the teacher might be able to predict that a biting incident is about to happen and intervene before it does.
If a child gets to be about three or four years old and they are still biting — or the biting is excessive or seems to be getting worse over time — it’s a good idea to talk to their paediatrician to get their input on possible causes and solutions.