When Toddlers Bite
What to do about this aggressive child behavior
Christi Craig of Atlanta, Georgia, says that when her daughter Della’s daycare sent home a report stating that her child had bitten a classmate, the report included a poem and some general instructions about how to handle biting, including comforting the bitten child and firmly telling the biter that he or she was wrong.
“I’m glad that the policy in place focuses more on redirecting the kids rather than trying to shame them,” Craig says.
Redirection is a great tool for curbing a biting child. If you see your child becoming frustrated, step in and offer help. If your child is getting into an altercation over a toy, negotiate a compromise.
Nicola Onychuk of Naperville, Illinois, whose daughter Yvette went through a biting phase when she was two, says offering a better choice worked for her. “We had good luck with giving her a substitute behavior. We’d say, ‘No biting! Gentle kisses!’ It helped that I could sort of tell when she was getting ready to bite, because of the way her mouth was moving and could head it off. We did the same with hitting—I would take her hand and show her how to give a gentle stroke instead.”
Unlike with hitting, however, parents often unconsciously model biting with their children. Who hasn’t bitten her toddler’s ears or laughed as a teething baby gummed an adult finger? A toddler sees this and may actually believe that biting will get positive attention.
“When they are biting and looking at you for a response is when you need to make sure that your response is in line with what you are trying to reinforce,” says Dr. Cardwell. “Tell your child, ‘this hurts Mommy’—with your eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice. You have to let your child know that this behavior is not okay.”
Understanding the Consequences
Immediate consequences are important when a child bites. Separate your child and the child he has bitten, and get your child involved in comforting the bitten child. Get down to your child’s level, speak in a firm voice, and let your child know that what he did is unacceptable. If your child bites while he’s with a caregiver, don’t discipline him again after you get him home because he may not even remember that the incident has occurred.
Diana Lilly says that she and her husband asked their daycare provider for a strong response when Julianne bites.
“They started out with just removing her from the situation and distracting her. We told them to speak with her very strongly. They’ve now started putting her in a crib and she hates being put in a crib by herself. She is starting to understand that this is a consequence of doing something wrong.”
To head biting off at the pass, parents should be aware of situations that make their child unduly anxious or frustrated and try to limit them wherever possible. For instance, your child may not be ready to have playdates at home, where he has to share his toys. Or she may not be able to cope with crowded, noisy playgrounds without feeling threatened, which may make her lash out and bite.
This Too Shall Pass
Although biting is very common in toddlers, experts say that you should expect to see children outgrow this behavior by age four. By this point, children have a greater ability to express their feelings verbally and have learned the basics of sharing. In the meantime, while it’s tough watching your child’s every movement to make sure she doesn’t bite her friends, Kinnell reminds parents that it really is just a phase.
“If biting wasn’t developmentally related, we would expect to see adults biting each other,” she says.
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