Parents of toddlers are often concerned about a common occurrence—biting. You are not alone! Most toddlers and preschoolers bite at one time or another, and it is a normal developmental occurrence. Children bite for a variety of reasons. Sometimes toddlers bite due to limited language skills or ways to express their feelings. Preschoolers may occasionally bite when they are so overly tired or frustrated and have lost control. The good new is there is much that parents and caregivers can do to reduce, and ultimately eliminate biting.
Why does my child bite?
It’s important to remember that while your child may bite, try not to label him/her as a “biter.” Labeling a child can often result in the child assuming the identity assigned to them, which would increase biting behavior.
Some reasons toddlers may bite include:
-they lack language skills necessary for expressing important needs or strong feelings such as happiness, anger or frustration. Without words to express feelings, biting can serve as a substitute (“I am very mad at you!”, “You are standing too close to me,” or “I am so excited!”)
-they are overtired
-they are teething
-they are overwhelmed by sounds, lights, or activity in a setting
-they need more active playtime
-they have a need for oral stimulation
-they are overwhelmed after intense play such as wrestling or tickling for an extended time
-they need more time to move from one activity to another
What are some solutions for biting?
Frustration/stress: watch for signs of increasing frustration; teach your child ways to show feelings appropriately and offer praise when he/she communicates appropriately
Teething: offer your child a teething biscuit, rubber teething ring or a partially frozen clean washcloth
Defense/Territorial: let your child know he/she is safe; ensure the area is not crowded, with plenty of space and toys
Attention-seeking: give your child attention when he/she is not biting, to make him/her less likely to bit for attention
Power/aggression: explain acceptable ways to interact with others; encourage positive behavior such as sharing and taking turns
How to discourage biting.
If you see your child on the verge of biting, there are strategies you can use to prevent biting:
- Distract your child with a book or toy. Shift your child’s attention to reduce the tension.
- Explain how your child can handle a situation that could lead to biting. You can say, “Johnny, it’s okay to tell Mary: ‘You are too close to me. I don’t like it when you touch my hair.’”
- Be sure there is ample space, equipment and toys to keep all children occupied and to minimize having to wait turns.
- Avoid overstimulation for a child who becomes easily frustrated. Keep groups small and make play periods shorter with less challenging activities.
- Teach cooperation throughout the day, demonstrating words and phrases children can use to express their desires and feelings. Praise cooperative behavior.
- Familiarize yourself with the child’s signals of rising frustration or anger.
- Teach children to share; this is a common trigger for biting. Use a kitchen timer to provide a visual reminder of how long they can play with a certain toy. In a classroom setting, be sure there is more than one of popular toys.
- Read books about biting. Ask your child how the characters might be feeling, and ask him/her what is happening in the pictures.
Some suggested books include:
-Teeth Are Not For Biting by Elizabeth Verdick
-No Biting by Karen Katz
-No Biting, Louise by Margie Palatini
What to do when your child bites
When a child bites, adults must intervene quickly, firmly and calmly. A child usually bites because he is out of control, which can be frightening to him. Parents and caregivers help a child the most by staying in control themselves. Reassure both the child who bit, as well as the victim. If possible, keep both children by your side as you inspect and wash the bitten area with warm, soapy water. By doing so, you demonstrate the consequences and seriousness of the behavior.
Young children may not understand that biting hurts. Make sure children understand that biting cannot be allowed and that you will stop it every time. A child who is out of control and frightened by his own behavior needs to know that adults will help take control until he/she is able to control himself.
In addition, many times when a child bites, adults pay much attention to him/her. Though it’s usually negative attention, it can still reinforce the behavior and cause it to continue rather than stop. When parents shift their attention to the child who was bitten, they communicate that biting will not result in more attention. Showing concern for the child who was bitten also teaches empathy.
When help is needed
Biting usually stops by age 3-1/2. If biting continues or increases in frequency, speak with your child’s pediatrician about the possibility of an assessment from a child development specialist.
We are available if you have any questions about your child’s development or behavior. We can be reached at 516-731-5588.
Some information shared courtesy of Children’s Home Society of California, www.chs-ca.org and www.zerotothree.org .