Have you ever thought about how weird it is, from a child’s perspective, to suddenly just … have teeth? And you get in trouble for using them, but only some of the time?
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No wonder your little one keeps trying to take little chunks out of you, the neighborhood children, your pets…
It can be upsetting — and embarrassing — when your toddler hurts somebody. But take heart: It doesn’t necessarily mean your child has serious behavioral issues.
We talked to child psychologist Kate Eshleman, PsyD, about why toddlers bite and how to properly address this common behavior.
Why biting is common
Dr. Eshleman says that there are many reasons children under age 2 might be biting. Here are a few of them:
- They’re teething and looking for relief.
- They’re feeling frustrated about not being able to communicate their feelings verbally.
- They need more oral or sensory stimulation.
- They’re exploring — answering questions like, “What does biting feel like?” and “What happens when I do it?”
- They’re overwhelmed, overtired, hungry or need more active playtime.
Tips to help stop biting
You can’t avoid the biting phase, but you can make it shorter and easier — on both you and your toddler. We’ve compiled a few tips to help.
Figure out why it’s happening
Does the biting behavior happen mid-temper tantrum? Does your toddler always bite the same person? Is there a time of day when their biting behavior is at its worst? Does the behavior tend to happen in response to the same situation (like being excited)? How long has it been since your toddler ate a meal or did something physically active?
Understanding your child’s triggers will make it easier to predict — and prevent — future biting incidents.
Don’t label, shame, punish or bite your child
Your reaction to your toddler’s biting has a big impact. Here’s a quick list of common responses to avoid.
- Don’t label your child “a biter.” Dr. Eshleman is quick to remind parents, “it’s not out of the ordinary for children under age two to bite others. It doesn’t mean your child is bad — it just means they’re going through a phase.” Negative labeling can hurt both your perception of your child and their self-perception.
- Don’t yell at or shame your toddler. Yelling at or shaming your child for biting won’t make them stop, but it could make them more upset — and, in turn, more aggressive with others.
- Don’t punish a child for biting. It can be easy to lose sight of your parenting goals (and your patience!) in the moment, but you’re trying to teach your child discipline, social skills and self-control. Punishment doesn’t do any of those things. It just adds more pressure and feelings into a mix that your toddler is already struggling to negotiate.
- Don’t bite your child back. Some people think biting a child back is instructive — that they need to be bitten to understand that it hurts. That’s incorrect. Biting your child is a form of abuse, just like hitting. It also communicates that violence is an acceptable way to respond to problems.
Use short, clear communication
Dr. Eshleman notes that what you say matters just as much as how you say it. While it’s common to say things like, “We don’t bite our friends” or “We don’t bite mommy or daddy,” those phrases give children permission to bite others that aren’t their friends or family. Instead, focus on making statements like “We don’t bite” or “Biting hurts.”
Talk to your child’s other caregivers
Maybe you’re doing everything right, but grandpa just laughs when his grandchild gives him “love bites.” Maybe the babysitter has been “play-biting” your child to make them giggle. It’s important to be sure everybody caring for your toddler, from paid professionals to your extended family, is responding appropriately to biting behavior.
Behavior modification media
Dr. Eshleman notes that there are a lot of resources out there to help you through this less-than-joyful part of parenting. “If the biting continues or you feel you need additional assistance, there are many books written for both toddlers and parents, as well as songs and videos that can assist with addressing the behavior.”
What to do when your toddler bites another child
If your child bites another child, Dr. Eshleman recommends responding this way:
- Remain calm and intervene right away.
- Make sure the person who was bitten isn’t hurt. It’s important to first attend to the person your toddler bit because it’ll discourage a child who’s biting for attention. If your kid bit another child, don’t try and force them to continue playing together if they don’t want to. Console the bitee, make sure to check for broken skin and wash the area with soap and water. Even little teeth can cause big infections!
- Tell the biting child in a very neutral tone that biting isn’t OK. You need to react calmly and firmly. Using a simple phrase like “We don’t bite” or “Biting hurts” is more effective than a detailed explanation of why biting is wrong. Remember, your child is likely already in a heightened emotional state, so staying calm will help defuse the situation.
- Encourage. If you know what prompted the incident, offer verbal alternatives. For example, show your child how to ask nicely for something or how to express their need for personal space.
- Redirect the child to another, more positive activity. Older toddlers may get upset upon realizing that they hurt somebody. If they are, allow them to apologize to their friend. Otherwise, direct them to another activity: A different toy or sensory play or — if they bit because they were hungry — offer them a crunchy snack.
When to talk to your pediatrician
Biting typically stops (or slows down considerably), between ages 3 and 4. If your child’s biting behavior isn’t stopping — or if it’s getting worse as they get older — you should talk to your pediatrician about it.
Of course, you don’t have to wait until your kid’s out of diapers to ask for help. “Your pediatrician can offer assessment and advice at any and every stage of your child’s growth and development,” Dr. Eshleman says.
It’s frustrating trying to parent a tiny cannibal, but biting shouldn’t be a cause for concern in children under age 2. Your child’s using their teeth to express complicated feelings and ideas, to get attention, to provoke responses and to better understand this wild world, full of colors, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
Responding calmly and resisting the urge to punish or shame your child will help them develop the social and communication skills they need. If the behavior doesn’t improve — or gets worse — reach out to your pediatrician for support.