Toddlers and Biting: Finding the Right Response

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Trying your best to understand the underlying cause of the biting will help you develop an effective response. Children bite in order to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need.

Biting is a very common behavior among toddlers, which means there are a lot of concerned parents out there. You are not alone. The good news is that there is a lot that parents and caregivers can do to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate biting.
To set the stage for effectively addressing this challenge, avoid calling or thinking of your child as a “biter” and ask others not to use this term. Labeling children can actually lead to them taking on the identity assigned to them, which can intensify biting behavior rather than eliminate it.
Shaming and harsh punishment do not reduce biting.
Children bite in order to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need. For example, your child may be biting to express a strong feeling (like frustration), communicate a need for personal space (maybe another child is standing too close) or to satisfy a need for oral stimulation. Trying your best to understand the underlying cause of the biting will help you develop an effective response. This makes it more likely that you will be successful in eliminating the behavior.
Why do toddlers bite?
There are many reasons why toddlers might bite. Some are listed below. If you think one of these reasons might by why your child is biting, read specific strategies on how to respond later in the article. Toddlers might bite if they:
Lack language skills necessary for expressing important needs or strong feelings like anger, frustration, joy, etc. Biting is a substitute for the messages he can’t yet express in words like: I am so mad at you, You are standing too close to me, I am really excited, or I want to play with you.
Are overwhelmed by the sounds, light or activity level in this setting
Are experimenting to see what will happen
Need more active playtime
Are over-tired
Are teething
Have an need for oral stimulation

What Can I Do to Prevent Biting?
Questions to Consider
As you watch your child at play, you can begin to anticipate when a bite might occur. The following questions can guide you in identifying the kinds of situations often lead to biting:
What happened right before the bite?
Who was your child playing with?
Who was bit? Is it always the same child, or different children each time?
What was your child doing?
Where was your child?
Who was caring for your child?
Strategies to Prevent Biting
If you see signs that your child might be on the verge of biting, you can:
1. Distract your child with a toy or book. Suggest looking out the window or take a walk to another room or outside. The goal is to reduce the tension and shift your child’s attention.

When parents shift their focus and energy to the child who was bitten, they clearly communicate that biting does not result in more attention. (Credit: Szefei / Shutterstock.com)
2. Suggest how your child might handle the situation that is triggering the need to bite. For example: Marcus, you can tell Ana: “You are a little too close to me. I don’t like it when you touch my hair.” If you think your child might be biting due to a need for oral stimulation, offer your child something he can safely bite and chew—a cracker, some carrot sticks, or a teether.
3. Suggest ways to share. Take out a kitchen timer to give children a visual reminder of how long they can each play with a particular toy. In a group caregiving setting, you will want to make sure that the classroom has more than one of the most popular toys. Sharing is one of the most common triggers for biting.
4. Reading books about biting can also help. As you read, ask your child how the different characters might be feeling. If you have an older toddler, you can ask him to “read” the book to you, by telling you what is happening based on the pictures. Some titles to recommend include:

Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick

No Biting by Karen Katz

No Biting, Louise by Margie Palatini

 

What Do I Do When My Toddler Bites?
First, keep your own feelings in check. When a toddler bites, you might feel frustrated, infuriated, annoyed, embarrassed, and/or 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—count to 10, take a deep breath, or do whatever works for you.

Identifying the kinds of situations that often lead to biting will help you find the best way to prevent biting. (Credit: Issarapong Srirungpanich / Shutterstock.com
In a firm, matter-of-fact voice (but not angry or yelling), say: No biting. Biting hurts. Comment on how the other child is feeling: Look, Madison is crying. She is crying because you bit her. Biting hurts. Keep it short, simple and clear.
Next, shift your attention to the child who was bitten. Often when a child bites, adults pay a lot of attention to him or her. This is usually negative attention, but it is still very reinforcing and can actually cause the biting behavior to continue, rather than stop. When parents shift their focus and energy to the child who was bitten, they clearly communicate that biting does not result in more attention. Showing concern and sympathy for the child who was bitten also teaches empathy.
Remember, learning a new behavior takes time.
If your child is verbal and able to talk about his experiences, go back and talk with him about the different strategies he can use next time, instead of biting: If Tyler grabs your cuddly and won’t let it go, you can say: “Tyler, that is my cuddly. Give it to me.” If he won’t give it back, you can come get me and I will help you. Or: When you want to play, you can say: “Will you play with me?” Then your friend knows you are ready to play.
Help the children move on. Ask: What would you like to play now? It might help to offer activities, like play-dough, drawing, or playing in sand or water, that allow them to release energy in constructive ways and can help them relax. The toddler who bit and the child who was hurt should not be made to play with one another, unless they want to.
Remember, learning a new behavior takes time. Your toddler may bite again, so continue watching playtime closely. It also helps to use the same words (No biting. Biting hurts.) as consistently as possible to emphasize the message.

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