Biting is common toddler behaviour mamas! Which unfortunately doesn’t make it any less distressing. We tend to worry that we’re raising a monster when our child bites, and it embarrasses us and makes us feel helpless. In reality, biting in toddlers is simply a way to communicate.
Toddlers are nonverbal and their brains are immature — they can’t tell us their complex feelings and desires. This doesn’t mean that they don’t experience them! Biting may be a way to communicate frustration, anger, or sadness, especially when they’re overwhelmed or hungry. On the other hand it can simply be teething discomfort or a need for oral stimulation. The arrival of a new sibling and other significant events also stress your children and cause them to bite. Whatever the cause, it’s not a sign of future violent tendencies — very few children over the age of 3 are still biting. Biting is a common and normal phase that will pass, even if you don’t do anything to address it.
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But of course you WANT to address it, and you may be willing to try anything! Unfortunately, punishing your child or forcing them to apologise won’t address the underlying need and probably won’t stop it. And please don’t follow the very common but ill-thought-out advice to bite your child back! Toddlers model OUR behavior, so if we bite when we are angry with them, we are actually giving them the message that biting is okay!
So what can you do?
First, take a deep breath, calm yourself and remember that this is age-appropriate behaviour. Then calmly say to your child, “No biting, biting hurts.” Point out if the other child is upset about being bitten, but do not force your child to apologise. Empathy is learned over time and by example, it can’t be forced before they’re mentally mature enough to understand. You can give more attention to the injured child and less to who bit them, so that you are not reinforcing negative attention seeking. And you can apologise to the injured child (or rather the injured parents) by saying, “We are so sorry about the bite. My child is still learning that biting is not okay.”
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Next you can try to put your child’s feelings into words by saying something like, “I know you are angry that Adam took your toy.” This will help your child learn OVER TIME to use words, not actions. You can also offer a suitable alternative, such as, “You can’t bite your friend, but you can bite this apple, or your pillow or this teether.” Finally, if necessary, you can leave the play date or the party and explain to your child that you can’t stay there now because the other children do not like to be bitten. Again, this is not a lesson that an immature toddler will learn instantly—it takes time and development, but it will come.
There are also ways to prevent or reduce the likelihood of biting. Try to figure out why YOUR child is biting (each child is unique) and avoid that. For example, if your child bites when tired, avoid skipping naps or staying too long at a play date, and if your child bites when hungry, travel with snacks. If your child is going through an intense biting phase, you may even want to avoid play dates altogether until the phase passes. In addition, you can teach your child some baby sign language to help them express their desires. You can also hold or hug your child when you sense they are having a hard time, which can soothe them and help them hold it together. If you think your child is teething or meeting oral stimulation needs, offer plenty of suitable alternatives for satisfying their needs.
Biting can also be an indication that your toddler lacks control over his day-to-day activities. In ToddlerCalm classes and workshops, we teach techniques for giving your child a little control in appropriate ways and times, so they’ll be less likely to react badly. We believe that biting, like any other behaviour that is expressing a need, is not something to be punished or shamed. Biting behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg, while the real reason for the behaviour — the need – has to be acknowledged and met.