Why Toddlers Bite
Few things are more mortifying than hearing that your child has bitten someone, yet biting is incredibly common between the ages of one and three (peaking between 12 and 24 months). It's important, and relieving, for parents to realize that biting and other aggressive behaviors among toddlers usually lack clear intent. In other words, your child might be as surprised as you are that she bit someone!
Biting usually happens when a toddler feels overwhelmed and loses control. Toddlers are just beginning to understand and practice appropriate emotional and social skills, and don't have enough language to express their desires or frustrations. Things can quickly spin out of control. "Toddlers are so easily frustrated. They know what they want to do but can't get things to work they way they want," says Gretchen Kinnell, Education Director of Child Care Solutions in Syracuse, NY, and author of No Biting: Policy and Practice for Toddler Programs. "So even if they're putting together a puzzle and the pieces won't go in and they get frustrated, sometimes it just feels good to bite down on something."
An undeveloped concept of personal space can also cause biting. "Toddlers don't know how close they are to other people or how close other people really are to them. A toddler will walk right over someone instead of around them, and get themselves into tight spaces. If a toddler's feeling crowded, they might bite—all they know is, 'Someone is in my space,'" says Kinnell.
Even repeat biters might not understand that it hurts to be bitten. In their mind, it's more like a panic button that quickly puts an end to sticky situations—certainly easier than finding the words, "I was playing with that ball. Could I please have it back?" Playgroup bystanders might notice the effectiveness of a bite; thus, imitation is also a common reason for biting.
Physically, as children get more teeth, they're realizing the (literal) mark they can make on sippy cups, wooden blocks, and the like. "Toddlers are going through a period in which they are developing oral motor skills—they're practicing and perfecting the skills they need to chew, suck, and swallow. And they're also learning to do all the oral work they need to do to speak," says Kinnell. "As a consequence, lots of things go in their mouths. So if they're next to another child and they see a nice plump arm there, they might start to mouth it, and then, chomp it."
Whether they're biting out of worry, frustration, or just trying to assert their own autonomy, "biting is really not unexpected at this stage," says Kinnell. "The only way to know what the reason [for biting] is, is by observing the child and the situation and putting two and two together. For example, with one young boy, every time someone came close to him, he would bite. So we had to figure out how to deal with that while he's in this stage. When he gets better with that, the biting will disappear."
What to Do
"Any time a child bites, they need to hear a message of disapproval without it being threatening or scary," says Kinnell. "Tell the child in a low-pitched and serious voice, and speak a little slower and quieter than usual: 'No. No biting. You hurt him. No biting.' Sometimes it's helpful to put two fingers on the child's lip so that they know, 'Oh, it's what I did with my mouth.' Redirect the child away to something else, and give more attention to the child that was bitten." Kinnell warns against using an accepting voice with a non-accepting message; they'll hear, "You're cute. Do that again." Stay away from long, drawn-out explanations, too. Toddlers can't follow the logic of, "Would you want to be bitten?"
The biter may be just as frightened as the bitten by her loss of control and the bitten child's reaction. Comfort both children. If your child was bitten, explain that it looked like his friend was upset and didn't mean to hurt him. But biting is not okay and she shouldn't have done it. For the biter, give empathy and comfort, but also give limits—all of which will help reestablish boundaries and her sense of control. You could say, "Wow, you seemed pretty frustrated. I bet you felt like you just didn't know what to do. But biting is not okay. Next time you feel this way, I can help you stop and think of other things to do so that you don't bite."
Until children learn other strategies to deal with frustration, biting can remain an easy and effective solution. Support your child by giving her words to say when she feels frustrated, like, "I'm using this." Kinnell suggests teaching them how to say "Oh no!" and put their hands on their hips really hard. You can also try to prevent frustration. "If he always gets frustrated with a certain toy, put it away for a while, or get out easier version. Provide activities that are soothing for the child, like Play-Doh," suggests Kinnell. If space is the issue, remind her that she can take her toy to a different area if she feels crowded. And if you're able to see signs of an oncoming bite, try to gently intervene and redirect the children. These strategies will likely need to be repeated, consistently, over and over. Working on language is also a good idea. "The more they speak, the less they bite," says Kinnell.
Keep in Mind
Strategies that don't work? Biting them back ("You are literally showing children that biting is good because you bit them," says Kinnell); putting hot sauce or lemon juice in their mouth ("Toddlers can't use logic to understand the point you're making," says Kinnell). Even punishment doesn't make a big impression. "If someone they're close to expresses disapproval, that makes a big impression," says Kinnell. The parent's role is to calmly and consistently show the child that this behavior is unacceptable—remind her verbally that biting hurts—and teach her appropriate behaviors that help her feel in control. And remember, a lot of toddlers bite, but most 10-year-olds don't.
More Toddler Misbehaviors
Check out these other problem behaviors—and solutions: