Biting. It seems like one of the most savage forms of attack, almost animal in nature. Yet, most babies and toddlers will go through a biting stage at some point. As parents, we wonder where this instinct comes from – certainly we’ve never modeled such behavior and are at a loss to explain where our children learn to do such a vicious thing. Relax…biting is a natural behavior, part of growing up and asserting our independence as human beings.
Infants and toddlers are very sensory-motivated due to a limited vocabulary and primitive communication skills (Pitman, 2008). Imagine the frustration you would feel if you were unable to speak as a friend or relative calmly walked over and took one of your prized possessions. Without the means to shout, you’d probably resort to chasing them down and using force to regain what was rightfully yours. Such is the case with infants and toddlers: lacking the ability to reason and judge what is “mine” and “yours”, they resort to physical means to obtain or retrieve toys, food, and other items they want or need. As one researcher put it, “Biting in these first years, rather than being calculated, is an impulsive, misguided attempt at communication, before language and social skills are solid enough to temper overpowering desires” (Sparrow, 2008).
We’ve all heard the stories about how dirty the human mouth is and how filled with germs our saliva is. Horror stories abound, and we worry about the possibility of infection should our child be on the receiving end of a set of pearly white chompers. So when we show up at daycare or school to find a note saying our child has been the victim of a biting incident, our guard goes up and we demand an answer immediately. What happened and what is being done to ensure the offending child is dealt with appropriately? Is it safe for our child to return if the biter is still enrolled? What of this bully who seems to have no regard for the feelings of others?
Each of us hopes we aren’t the parents on the receiving end of a call from school or daycare telling us our child is the “problem” in a biting situation. We cringe when we hear those words in relation to other people’s children, wondering what those parents did wrong and knowing we’ve spent hours teaching our children to use their words (if they have them). Yet for most, that call will come telling us that Jane or Johnny has indeed bitten another child at daycare. Ugh. Now we have a situation to deal with, one we’ve probably no idea how to address since we ourselves understand the wrongness of biting in the first place. If you don’t understand the why behind the behavior, how can you possibly hope to teach your child not to bite? Even if you do know that biting is simply an instinctive behavior, how can you stop it?
Beginning at a place of understanding is the most productive start to addressing biting behavior. Knowing that toddlers have no concept that others feel pain as they do can start you down the road to understanding biting and how to prevent it (Pitman, 2008). Also, understand that toddlers (unlike adults) are incapable of holding grudges; thus, conflicts between infants and toddlers are short-lived and the participants forget the biting long before we parents do (Gloecker & Cassell, 2012). Once you have grasped these two essential ideas, try some of the following tips and tricks to address both the biter and the bitten in a constructive way that teaches children to use other means of conflict resolution. If you’re a parent with a child in preschool or daycare, you can use some of these at home to remind your child that biting is not appropriate and you are there to help them through the situation.
- Address the problem promptly. This can be an issue if you are a parent with a child in preschool, but even in cases where you are called at work or receive an incident notice, you can take a few moments with your child to actively participate in resolving the issue. If your child is the biter, make certain to talk to them about why they shouldn’t bite others. (This is more difficult for non-verbal infants and may not be as effective.) If your child is bitten, take the opportunity to ask them to show you the mark, tell them you know it hurt, and tell them it is not okay to bite or let someone else bite them. Reassure them that both yourself and their teacher/caregiver are there for comfort and protection.
- Use positive language to explain why teeth are used for eating, not biting. Never approach a toddler with negative language first; the only word he or she will here is “no” and a crying situation is likely to follow. Tell children that they are to use their mouths only for talking and eating and remind them that biting hurts the other child.
- NEVER practice “an eye for an eye” with biting. In years past, it was customary for a bitten child to be given the opportunity to bite the offender as a means of showing them how much biting can hurt. In most cases, this only serves to reinforce biting as a way to assert power over another person and toddlers will come to understand that biting produces crying and a natural instinct to flee, leaving toys or snacks behind for the biter to claim.
Rest assured that biting, when addressed early and appropriately, is a behavior which disappears in most children around the age of three, or when their verbal skills develop enough to allow them to ask for what they want or explain their frustration with a situation. If biting continues past this point or becomes frequent, it may be necessary to talk to your pediatrician about other avenues for addressing aggressive behavior.
Gloecker, L., & Cassell, J. (2012). Teacher practices with toddlers during social problem solving opportunities. Early Childhood Education Journal, 40(4), 251-257.
Lindert, R. (2011). Birth to 2: What’s with the biting? Scholastic Parent & Child, 19(3), 82.
Pitman, T. (2008). 1-2 years: Hitting and biting with a smile. Today’s Parent, 25(6), 174.
Sparrow, J. (2008). Why babies bite. Scholastic Parent & Child, 15(8), 34.