Toddler Bites

April 10, 2012 · 36 comments

in Daily Life, Development, Discipline, Toddlers

Heather writes: My son is 15 months old and a biter. He has been biting me especially, but pretty much anyone or anything in his path for at least six months now. I have tried EVERYTHING. Like you, I am also in the Early Education field and have worked with kids and families for about ten years. I have worked with extremely challenging behaviors before and feel pretty qualified to handle most anything, but for some reason when it comes to my son and his biting I just can not find a resolution. Do you have any advice? Unfortunately, as the biting continues my response is becoming less and less ideal and I hate for this to be a defining moment of how I parent and how my son learns. I appreciate any advice and encouragement you can provide!

Apple Eater

Hi Heather,

I know it may sound odd, but in this case, it may actually help you to try to step back a little, and to look at your son’s behavior through your “professional eyes”, instead of through your “Mom eyes”!

Many toddlers will bite at one time or another, but supporting a toddler who is biting on a regular basis can be a real challenge, and it can be especially hard to remain calm when the biting is directed at you, and/or it’s your own child who is doing the biting. It’s common for parents to feel they are doing something wrong, and/or that their child’s behavior reflects badly on them, especially since biting is a behavior that often arouses strong negative feelings (and sometimes even fear) in adults.

I want to encourage you to begin by taking a step back and re-framing your description of the problem. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s important to separate your child’s behavior from the whole of who your child is. As soon as we describe a child using a label, “He’s a biter,” ” She’s shy,”  “He’s a bully,”  “She’s a clown,” it can become difficult to see anything else about the child, and to separate the behavior you don’t like from the child that you love. So- your son is not “a biter”  but a young toddler who bites, and your goal is to help him learn alternative ways to communicate. This is a much more neutral and powerful place to begin when trying to cope with a challenging behavior. “Biters” are often thought of as being  “bad children,” “out of control,” “bullies,”  or “antisocial”. Nothing could be further from the truth. A young toddler who is biting as a way of communicating needs support to understand and learn to communicate feelings in ways that don’t hurt others.

Let’s start by looking at the reasons toddlers might bite. Very often, biting occurs as a natural extension of a child’s learning and exploration. Young children explore  their world using all of their senses, and will often mouth or bite toys as part of their play. In the course of exploring, they may experiment with mouthing or biting people as well as objects, because they are curious, or maybe they are teething. When they bite, they may find it feels good! and/or they may receive very strong reactions from those around them, which may make it more tempting for them to try the behavior again. In group situations, children sometimes copy each other’s behavior. Other children bite when they feel crowded, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, over-excited, or out of control.

It’s common for pre-verbal toddlers to express themselves using actions as opposed to words- think of a toddler who takes a toy from another’s hand, or one who drops her food on the floor to indicate she’s done eating, or one who  brings a blanket to a friend who is sad. Toddlers feel and understand so much, and have so much they want to express, and their ways of expressing themselves are often direct and action oriented.

Young children are in the very beginning stages of developing impulse control, social graces, and empathy, and are just learning to express desires, frustration, and pain through using words instead of through crying or taking action. Your son may know it hurts when someone bites him, but he can’t yet easily take the perspective of another, and he may not yet understand that it hurts you when he chomps on your arm. He will gain the ability to take another’s perspective through repeated experience, and with support and modeling from patient, loving adults.

Whatever the reason for the biting, you want to make it clear that biting another person is not a choice or an option. Although the curiosity or feelings that lead to the biting are acceptable, biting is not an acceptable way to express feelings.

1) The best way to stop biting is to prevent it from occurring, if at all possible. Be prepared. Observe closely, learn to anticipate the bite, and try to stop it before it happens. Block the bite if at all possible, by placing an arm between two children or an object (like a pillow) between your body and your child’s while saying, “I won’t let you bite.”

2) If a bite occurs: Calmly, but consistently and firmly, set limits. It can be tough to stay calm, especially if you are the one being bitten, because biting hurts, but it is so important, because big reactions are interesting to young children and if your son  is getting a strong reaction from you (or anyone else), this may inadvertently encourage the biting behavior. Your son may be getting the message that biting is a way to make things happen. Regain your composure as quickly as possible, and say, “I don’t want you to bite. Biting hurts.” If the biting occurs when you are holding your child, you might put him down, or move him away from you saying, “I am going to move you away from me because you’re biting.” And then gently, and kindly, but firmly, move him away from you. If another child has been bitten, stay calm and offer comfort to the child who has been bitten, but avoid making too big of a deal of the incident, so it doesn’t become too interesting to either child. You might say, “X bit you and you are crying. Does it hurt? Let’s go wash your arm with some cool water to make it feel better.”

3) Offer an acceptable alternative to biting. It helps to have a teether or two handy to offer to a child who is biting.”If you need to bite, bite this.” (Some children benefit from wearing their own teething necklace or bracelet. Look here and here for products I’ve used and  recommend.)

When biting behavior becomes a habit, or is persistent and chronic, it can be helpful  to ask yourself, 1) “What need is being met for my child through this behavior?” and 2)”How can I help my child to get this need met in a way that doesn’t hurt others?”

It’s important to look closely at your home environment and your child’s daily schedule for clues to determine when biting is most likely to occur. Sometimes, a pattern can be discovered. Try to take note of what happens BEFORE the bite, so you can be prepared to intervene as calmly and casually as possible. Often, this means staying close and “shadowing” your child, especially in situations where you know biting is likely to occur.

Your child may be feeling out of control, or testing boundaries if biting has become habitual. Many young toddlers resort to biting when they are over stimulated, so try to be mindful of, and reduce environmental stress and sensory overload as much as possible. If you can discover the underlying triggers, and you consistently respond by calmly setting a limit and offering an alternative, your toddler will eventually learn to express himself without feeling the need to bite.

All young toddlers benefit from predictable daily routines, and it helps to be mindful of tiredness, hunger or low blood sugar, and over-stimulation. Some children benefit from a much reduced noise and activity level, and much more active play outdoors. Consider reducing or eliminating all screen time if you currently allow it. If bites tend to occur more in group situations, it may be helpful or necessary to take a break from group activities for a time, if at all possible. If your child attends childcare, it is important to confer with his caregivers to make sure everyone is responding consistently and in the same calm way when biting occurs. It can be helpful to talk openly with adult family members and friends (not in front of your son) about what is going on and how you are handling it, especially if you are engaging in social situations with them and their children.

Sometimes it helps to assign one adult to be a “buddy” or shadow a child in group situations. Having a trusted adult nearby to provide narration of events can be comforting and soothing to a toddler who feels overwhelmed with sensory input, or crowded by others. Get into the habit of naming emotions for your child (his, yours, and other people’s) and when he has the need to bite, give him healthy, safe alternatives. Encourage your son to bite on something safe, punch pillows, take a deep breath, stamp his feet, or yell “Stop” to get feelings of frustration or anger out. Time spent in nature often has a very soothing effect as do activities like water play, shaving cream art, and play dough.

Most of all, I want to encourage you to hang in there with your son, and have faith that he will move through this challenging phase with your guidance and support- because he will- and you have what it takes to help him! Notice and celebrate each and every time he shows self restraint, and doesn’t bite. If you consistently respond to your son’s biting behavior in the way I’ve outlined, you will see positive improvement in time (usually about four weeks). If you feel you’re already doing all you can do, or you are at your wits end, and nothing seems to be helping, then it might be worthwhile to consider a personal in-home consultation with a professional. Sometimes, it can be enourmously helpful to hear the viewpoint and perspective of an experienced person who is looking at your situation with unbiased eyes, and can offer insight and support as you make your way through a difficult patch.

I hope others who have been where you are might also offer their thoughts and support in the comments. Please let me know how things are going… I’ll be thinking of you!

 

 

 

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Shivam Rachana April 11, 2012

Redirecting the biting energy/impulse is a good idea. Providing playful ways to engage and express it is too. ‘You be a dog and this is your bone. Show me how you chew it. What strong teeth you have. Can you chew this apple with your big strong teeth? Does the dog growl as he bites the bone? Can you be a tiger ? Can you growl? etc and if another child is bitten ‘ NB is not a bone. We don’t bite people . We bite bones. or apples What else is good for you to bite?
I remember my son and his little friend who were very close going through a biting stage that was quite challenging for the adults. They were very intense with each other. Your advice to watch what happens before the incident occurs is wise too.

Heather Stewart April 15, 2012

I love these suggestions! I am a day care provider and I wanted to chime in and say that in a group setting getting parents involved is amazing! Parents make such a difference! With a recent “biting flu” as it’s contagious, you mentioned this, we had the children hug and kiss and caught the moment in a picture. We sent these loving pictures home to have available to show each morning to the children. “Look at how happy your friends are when you hug and kiss them!” This was the theme. We also changed the behavior easily in 24-48 hours with big reactions to hugging and holding hands. We focused the excitement and created the moments for the children by modeling as well and asking the children to hug, if they wanted to. It wasn’t inauthentic either- it came off very natural- and the children really enjoyed this. Hugging is the new thing now! The latest flu.

Lisa April 16, 2012

Hi Heather,

Thanks for your comment. I like the idea of a hugging flu as opposed to a biting flu, but I personally feel very uncomfortable with “asking” children to hold hands or hug, for a couple of reasons: One, it’s possible that for a child who is biting because he is experiencing sensory issues, needing space, or feeling crowded, hugging and holding hands may actually lead to more frustration and possibly more biting. Second, I tend not to like to ask children to hold hands or hug unless this impulse comes from within them, and the other child or children involved are comfortable receiving the hugs. If children are giving and receiving hugs out of genuine intrinsic desire, and are also showing respect for friends who may not want a hug, then I see nothing wrong with quietly acknowledging these interactions when they occur. It’s important to me to help children develop awareness of their own body boundaries, and comfort levels, as well as helping them to develop an understanding that others have boundaries. In terms of any physical contact, whether it be hugs, hand holding, or rough housing and play wrestling, I observe closely, and I always make it clear that physical contact is OK as long as both children are equally comfortable engaging in (and both are enjoying) the exchange. If either child expresses discomfort, then I ask the children to give each other some space; “You want to hug Susie, but she is saying she doesn’t want a hug right now.” Janet Lansbury wrote an excellent post about this topic: Can Babies Love Too Much? Teaching Children To Give Affection With Respect

I appreciate your desire to create what I see as a “culture of caring and kindness” in your classroom environment, but might I suggest that this includes focusing not just on hugging as a way of making others happy, but on “catching” and commenting on all of the many, many ways young children and adults can and do show respect, caring and kindness for each other within the classroom, as well as honoring the struggle that sometimes occurs as children learn to be in relationship and form friendships with each other?

Heather Stewart April 17, 2012

Thanks for your feedback Lisa, I was just offering what has worked for me in certain circumstances. I do see that not having space can be a sign of biting- and in this case lowering numbers in a room by offering a few different activities has truly worked for me as well. This was an example of my latest experience where biting was more of an experiment from a few select toddlers than for an actual reason like sensory space issues, teething, ect.

For me, I love presenting the opportunity for children to hug or to hold hands, but I don’t think of it as telling them to do something, but offering them the opportunity to join in, if they do wish to. I suppose I did not take the time to explain the experience and it does sound as though I told them “hug or else.” Truly it was presented as an option, if you wish, we can hug, or kiss, or hold hands. The idea of offering to share, to help and to out of their own accord, love, is something always present here. Sorry if we sounded like a “normal “day care, bossing the kids around to hug. We try to find an authentic way of offering this and one that offers a sense of freedom. I look forward to reading more from you! I love your thoughts and ideas.

Cindy July 23, 2012

Do any of you feel that a messy home environment can be a cause of a toddler’s biting?

Lisa July 23, 2012

Cindy,

I’m not sure. Why do you ask? I think possibly an unorganized home environment might cause some stress for a toddler, which could possibly contribute to biting behavior, but I wouldn’t think that alone would necessarily cause biting behavior. I’ve known toddlers who have lived in messy home environments who were quite content, and never bit.

Mary S. October 4, 2012

The information here is really helpful, but almost makes me feel more at a loss than I was before reading it. My just turned two year old has gone from the exploratory biting(since 14-15 months) to habitual biting and we are having the toughest time stopping it. She has been through so many changes within the last eight months, so I know that is a contributing factor, but many of the things listed above haven’t helped.

The issue at daycare has gotten increasingly better, but she does have her days. They can pick up her triggers there better than we can at home. We also have twin girls (who are almost 8 months) and they are victims in this. We can’t seem to pick up the trigger at home and the methods above aren’t curbing the habit at all. We also do time outs, but they haven’t been helping much either. I like the idea of an acceptable alternative; I am concerned that this will only re-direct the problem and not help phase it out. Any further suggestions would be appreciated. I really feel like we’re failing our toddler and now our twins, as they are getting hurt so much.

Lisa October 4, 2012

Mary,

I feel your frustration. Here are some thoughts that I hope may help: A just turned two year old who is in childcare and has twin sisters is coping with an inordinate amount of stress, and needs support. I know it can be hard to see your twins being hurt by their sister, but try to ditch the notion that they are “victims’ and your toddler is the perpetrator of a “crime”. She’s struggling too. I’d stop the time outs, and I would offer her an acceptable alternative if she wants/needs to bite. It’s not enough to tell her she can’t/shouldn’t bite- she needs to know you won’t let her/don’t want her to bite people, and she needs to know what she can do instead when she feels an overwhelming urge to bite.

Biting, or the urge to bite, is not in and of itself “bad” or “wrong”. A toddler’s logic and impulse control is not the same as an adult’s, so it leaves her no place to go if she’s not given support to find an alternate/acceptable way to express the feelings that lead to the biting behavior. What has worked at childcare to decrease the biting? At home, I would advise not leaving your twins alone, unsupervised with their sister. Use gates to create safe, separate play spaces for the babies and your toddler, and to give them some space.

In the end, your daughter will respond to a calm, consistent approach. If she’s not getting a big response from you or others, if her every attempt to bite is thwarted with a calm matter of fact, “You want to bite. I won’t let you bite a person, but you may bite this toy instead,” you can be sure the behavior will decrease.

If at all possible, I’d advise spending brief periods of daily one on one time with your toddler, without the twins or other distractions.

Finally, here’s a recent post written by Janet Lansbury that I hope may be of some help: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/09/biting-hitting-kicking-and-other-challenging-toddler-behavior/.

There is no magic formula, and it is difficult to support a young toddler who is biting, but trust she (and you), can get to the other side of this together. Wishing you all the best, and let me know how it’s going!

Mary S. October 4, 2012

I appreciate the added advice, thank you.

Janet’s posts are acutally what led me to this one =) I’ve been reading a lot on these topics lately. Thanks again.

Tiffany Daniel November 27, 2012

I hope someone will see my comment even though this article was written back in April. My daughter is 14 months, she is watched 2 days a week by her grandma and her cousins are there as well. Her cousin bites her when they get mad at each other and my daughter started biting also. Now my daughter has bit me twice, once she wasn’t mad I think it was exploratory, the 2nd time she was tired, upset etc. My question though is that after she bit me she also bit herself on her arm. I don’t think she bit herself enough to really make it hurt, but she was just so frustrated it seemed like she just couldn’t control herself and just HAD to bite. Do I let her do this to herself?

Lisa November 27, 2012

Hi Tiffany,

I’d offer your daughter a safe alternative. “If you need to bite, bite this- teether, washcloth, doll, frozen bagel, etc.”

Lynn Bartolotti January 23, 2013

We have 2 yr. old and a 4 yr old biting each other and at day care. Nothing seems to stop this behavior.

Lisa January 23, 2013

Lynn,

You’ve got an entrenched behavior. It can be changed, but it will take time, persistence, and focus, and may require the support of some outside help. The basic steps to begin solving the problem are the same as I listed in the post. I’d also consider keeping the children apart, and giving them both some safe play space if an adult can’t be within an arms reach to observe and facilitate interactions, especially if they are really hurting each other.

Lindy February 19, 2013

I have twin boys who will be two soon. They are slow to talk (as is normal for twins) and recently one is biting a lot. I thought at first it was because he couldn’t verbalize his emotions. Within the last week it has taken a turn and seems to be without reason. It is always directed towards his twin. The biting during the day I can deal with and seems typical to what others have described. I am really concerned though that he has begun biting his SLEEPING brother. This just started last week and I am unsure how to handle. I don’t want to separate them because I think this shall pass, but I just don’t know what to do. I would appreciate anyone’s advice!

Lisa February 22, 2013

Lindy,

Do your boys sleep together in the same room, or the same bed? And how bad are the bites? How does the child who is being bitten react when his brother bites him?

I might consider temporarily separating them, or placing a barrier (like a gate) between them if they are in the same room, but separate beds, to protect both boys, until this passes.

Lindy February 22, 2013

Thanks Lisa. Yes they sleep in the same room, but in separate beds. I converted them from cribs to toddler beds about three weeks ago and I am wondering if this behavior is related. The twin who is biting was somewhat content in the crib, but his brother kept escaping so I thought it was time. Should I put him back in the crib and leave his brother in a bed?
The bites are definitely not nibbles. There are teeth marks and swelling. His brother wakes crying. I have taught him to say ‘no, bad’, but that doesn’t seem to help. This morning he ven woke his brother with a bite. Normally it has just been a night time thing.

Lisa February 22, 2013

Lindy,

Based on what you’re telling me, yes, I’d advise moving your son back into his crib, and leaving your other son in a bed if he is content. Also, it’s good that you’ve taught your son to say “No”, but he can’t really protect himself from the bites right now, so that’s why I’m suggesting the “environmental” protection. Also, if at all possible, try to refrain from thinking of your son’s behavior as “bad” and/or encouraging his brother to think or say “bad”. Your son is expressing himself in the way he can and knows how to, and while it’s not desirable, and you need to protect his brother, he’s not “bad”. Also have you tried giving him a special teether or toy and letting him know that he can bite that when he needs to?

Lindy February 22, 2013

I will try the crib tonight and see how it goes. Yes, I have made sure he has access to a teether, but he doesn’t show interest. We will try to remove ‘bad’ from our vocabulary. Wish us luck! Thanks for your advise.

Lisa C. June 27, 2013

I have 20 month old twin girls and biting is an “entrenched behavior”. It most definitely happens when they “feel crowded, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, over-excited, or out of control”….They make an “aewwww” sound before they bite and *sometimes* I have time to run over to intervene. The best course by far is to supervise at *all* times so that I can be there to intervene but this is not always possible. When I am not able to intervene and a bite occurs, my course of action has been to separate them, say “no bite” or more recently “I will not let you bite”. I have tried not to make too big of a deal over the one who is bitten so she does not become “victim”. I have also tried removing the biter to a corner where I sit with her and repeat “I will not let you bite”. This “time out” does not do much and actually sometimes she will laugh and try to play with me…I just don’t think this “time out” type thing makes a dent on their behavior. But I don’t see that saying “I will not let you bite” is getting through either. I have not tried offering a substitute teether to bite…but to be honest the reaction is so primal, so quick and comes from that lack of developed prefrontal cortex that I cannot see them saying to themselves (again, when I am not right at their side) “hmmm, sister has taken my toy…sister is in my space…sister is annoying me….I think I will chew on my teether instead of biting her”. What they know to do is bite and that’s what they do. It is going into hitting also. It is so awful for a toddler (or anybody) to go through their days never knowing when they may be bit (they usually draw blood) and I do not think I am doing enough. Pediatrician advises to set up a pack n play in another room with door closed and this will show her that biting is not a socially acceptable behavior. I have not taken this action though. The biting usually happens anywhere from 1 time per week to 5 times per week.

Marisa Silver February 6, 2014

I know this is an old post, but I’m hoping you can help.
I am having trouble knowing what to do during the bite. My 18 month old will chomp down long and hard (on a finger, my arm, pull my hair, etc.). It’s not a brief ‘one second and it’s over’ kind of thing. And it hurts. But man, that kid is strong, and it can be really hard to get him off/to stop. I lose my cool quick, because it hurts. I had thought that telling him it hurt/saying ouch would help – I see now that’s the wrong way to go. So I’m looking for guidance for what to do while it’s happening. (He bites when he is in a tantrum/upset.)
Thanks!

Lisa February 15, 2014

Maria, You’ve got to try to stop your son before he goes in for the bite. If he’s biting frequently, you may need to try to anticipate when he is most likely to bite, and avoid situations where he has access to your fingers, arms, etc., thus removing the opportunity to bite. When he is having a tantrum or is upset, don’t hold him. Put him down, stay nearby, and make sure you have suitable items for him to bite. If he does bite you, do your best to stay as calm as possible, remove his teeth from your body as quickly as possible, and then move away from him. You also want to look at and address what might be causing him to bite… tired, hungry, teething, family stress, feeling crowded, overstimulated, etc.

Alexa September 3, 2014

Hi – I have 26 month old twin boys who have been biting each other for a few months. It started with one of my guys (twin a) biting when he was frustrated or angry with the other. When the second guy (twin b) started biting too, it seemed at first it was a way to protect himself. Now it seems it is a way for him to assert his dominance and doesn’t just occur when twin A gets in his space. Rather, twin b will sometimes turn over to A and bite him for no apparent reason. Twin B also sometimes bites/tries to bite me, his dad and his two older siblings (aged 9 and 6). Twin B also pinches. Twin A sometimes hits. The best remedy is to supervise at *all* times so that I can be there to intervene, but this is not always possible. When I am not able to intervene and a bite occurs, my course of action has been to separate them, say “biting hurts. I won’t let you bite people.” Then I attend to the bitten child. If we are making any progress, it’s very slow. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance.

Barbara June 22, 2015

Hi Lisa!
Thanks for the advice in the text. My 18mo has been biting me and his friends for a few months. when he comes to bite me I already can tell that will happen and just by telling him not to bite and/or to kiss me instead, he will close his mouth when he is about to bite me. I also will give you something else to bite.
But when he is with other kids, sometimes it happens so fast I don’t have time to intervene. I have noticed it happens mostly when the other kid gets a toy he is playing with, but sometimes is for no apparent reason. But the case is that he will bite really, really hard. The other kid starts screaming and I feel terrible. Other than telling my son that I wont let him bite, how do you suggest I react? should I try to make him see the other kid is hurt? And try to make peace with them or something like that?
Thank you!

Lisa February 22, 2013

Lindy,

You’re welcome and luck! Let me know how it’s going.

Lindy February 24, 2013

I think that was the issue. He seems vey happy to be back in his crib. His overall mood has improved. He is still biting during the day when he is frustrated or angry, which we will work on. Thanks!

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