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Biting in the Toddler Years

Biting is very common among groups of young children, for all types of reasons. But whatever the reason for biting, most parents find it shocking and disturbing, and they want it to stop - quickly! Understanding why the young child bites is the first step in preventing biting as well as teaching the child alternatives to biting.

Most common reasons and solutions for biting

The Experimental Biter

It is not uncommon for an infant or toddler to explore their world, including people, by biting. Infants and toddlers place many items in their mouths to learn more about them. Teach the child that some things can be bitten, like toys and food, and some things cannot be bitten, like people and animals. Another example of the Experimental Biter is the toddler who wants to learn about cause and effect. This child is wondering, "What will happen when I bite my friend or Mommy?" Provide this child with many other opportunities to learn about cause and effect, with toys and activities.

The Teething Biter

Infants and toddlers experience a lot of discomfort when they're teething. A natural response is to apply pressure to their gums by biting on things. It is not unusual for a teething child to bear down on a person's shoulder or breast to relieve some of their teething pain. Provide appropriate items for the child to teeth on, like frozen bagels, teething biscuits, or teething rings.

The Social Biter

Many times an infant or toddler bites when they are trying to interact with another child. These young children have not yet developed the social skills to indicate "Hi, I want to play with you." So sometimes they approach a friend with a bite to say hello. Watch young children very closely to assist them in positive interactions with their friends.

The Frustrated Biter

Young children are often confronted with situations that are frustrating, like when a friend takes their toy or when daddy is unable to respond to their needs as quickly as they would like. These toddlers lack the social and emotional skills to cope with their feelings in an acceptable way. They also lack the language skills to communicate their feelings. At these times, it is not unusual for a toddler to attempt to deal with the frustration by biting whoever is nearby. Notice when a child is struggling with frustration and be ready to intervene. It is also important to provide words for the child, to help him learn how to express his feelings, like "That's mine!" or "No! Don't push me!"

The Threatened Biter

When some young children feel a sense of danger they respond by biting as a self-defense. For some children biting is a way to try to gain a sense of control over their lives, especially when they are feeling overwhelmed by their environment or events in their lives. Provide the toddler with nurturing support, to help him understand that he and his possessions are safe.

The Imitative Biter

Imitation is one of the many ways young children learn. So it is not unusual for a child to observe a friend bite, then try it out for herself. Offer the child many examples of loving, kind behavior. Never bite a child to demonstrate how it feels to be bitten.

The Attention-Seeking Biter

Children love attention, especially from adults. When parents give lots of attention for negative behavior, such as biting, children learn that biting is a good way to get attention. Provide lots of positive attention for young children each day. It is also important to minimize the negative attention to behaviors such as biting.

The Power Biter

Toddlers have a strong need for independence and control. Very often the response children get from biting helps to satisfy this need. Provide many opportunities for the toddler to make simple choices throughout the day. This will help the toddler feel the sense of control they need. It is also important to reinforce all the toddler's attempts at positive social behavior each day.

As with almost all potentially harmful situations involving children, prevention is the key. Adults must be active observers of children to prevent biting. In those times when close supervision doesn't work, the adult must intervene as quickly and as calmly as possible.

When intervening before the potential bite has occurred...

When your child bites...

Never hit or bite a child who has bitten. That will teach the child that violence is OK.

Young children need lots of practice to learn the fine art of interacting with their friends in a positive way. They need positive guidance and support from parents. When children gain maturity and experience (3+ years old), they will likely have developed more appropriate ways of interacting.

Reprinted with permission of the author. Source: National Association for the Education of Young Children

"Biting in the Toddler Years" is issued by the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Copies have been deposited with the Publications Clearinghouse of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.