Day care providers and toddler teachers at nursery schools will share that biting is often a normal part of child development and occurs to fulfill a need like teething, exploration, or a search for a reaction via cause and effect. While there is some truth to these ideas there are some other explanations to consider as well as responses to try…
OK, so why is my child biting?
- A speech and language delay. It might be that the bite is stepping in where words should be. Instead of saying, “Please don’t reach across me to get a play dough tool”, they see an arm in their face and they bite.
- They are overwhelmed and it may be a stress response. The busy-ness of the room, the unpredictability of who’s there or the number of people, the feeling of not knowing what comes next, the sounds, the lights, your child is saying, “This is too much for me!”
- Basic needs are not being met. These can cause a child to bite and are often overlooked. Perhaps they are tired, hungry, or need more movement. Or maybe they are in fact teething. Even toddlers as old as 2 and 3 years can experience teething.
- They have a sensory need that isn’t being met. Some children have a need for oral stimulation or deep pressure in their joints (proprioceptive input). The child bites because they find it soothing.
Only when we understand the child’s behavior as being a communication of one of the above needs can we engage in meaningful positive support and hope to see less biting.
Some quick tips on your initial reaction to biting:
- Do not overreact. Stay calm and use a clear, direct, and neutral sounding speaking tone to state the rule about not biting: “Ouch, that really hurt. Biting is not OK. You may not bite. Look at Paul’s face. He is sad because it hurt when you bit him.” Then check on the child or person who received the bite.
- Redirect the biter to something else. Maybe bring them away from other children or if you know that it’s transitions that are causing the biting incidents stay with them until they have completed the transition between activities. Removing the child to another area isn’t meant to be a timeout, they shouldn’t feel abandoned. It is more about redirecting them away from the scenario that elicited the bite. You or another adult can quietly stay with or near them. In fact that is preferable, if you have another adult to support the child who received the bite.
After a child bites, it's not time for a big long talk with them about biting and it’s not time to punish them or reflect extensively. It certainly is not time to show them what biting feels like. Never ever bite your child back. That may seem obvious, but I have heard of people doing this.
Is there anything else I can do, later on, after the initial response?
- Do not discuss the incident with others in earshot of the child who bit. Doing so will over-highlight it and make it into a bigger thing, thus increasing the likelihood of recurrence. And do not refer to them as “a biter.” It doesn’t help and the label may further stigmatize them.
- Be a detective. Find the patterns and address the underlying need. If biting is recurring, take notes as to what happened and when so you can look for patterns. When you start paying attention you might start to be able to prevent the bites. When you see it coming, distract your child and stay near to them. Once you know what the underlying needs are you can also mention them in your response when your child bites. You might say, “Next time someone reaches in front of you you can say, “Move your arm, I don’t like that.” Or “It seems like you want something to put in your mouth. Would you like some raisins or a chewing toy?”
- Follow your instincts. Sometimes reading age-appropriate books about biting helps children process the experience and learn not to bite. In other cases, it draws more attention to it, highlights it, and can increase the incidence of biting in children who really lack regulatory control and tend to seek interaction through negative means. Consider your child and whether a book about not biting or “using your words” is a good option. You know them best.
- Remind yourself that behavior is communication. It will absolutely serve everyone best if you see your child in the best possible light. Despite your frustration, continue to remind yourself that your child is doing the best that they can with the skills that they currently have. Think, “they were overwhelmed” or “they needed help” or “they didn’t have the words” as opposed to they are trying to manipulate me and get my attention by being bad. That perspective serves no one and doesn’t get your child the support they need to move through this developmental hurdle.
As the saying goes, this too shall pass. And if it feels like it isn’t passing, talk to your child’s preschool or daycare director and/or your pediatrician about other avenues of support. Hang in there!