Biting, Ages 1 to 3

What should I do if my child bites someone?

First, stay calm. Even if another child provoked yours and the child's parent is furious, remember that your toddler may just be "trying out" her teeth, unaware of how much pain she inflicted. Many toddlers bite once, learn that biting is wrong, and never do it again.

At the same time, let your child know right away that she did something wrong. Pull her away from the person she bit. Look her in the eye, and say no in a firm, strong voice. Now is not the time for long explanations; your child must understand that you are seriously displeased.

Promptly give your child a time-out to impress upon her that she did something wrong.

Examine the child or adult who was bitten. (Check your child, too, as she may also have been bitten -- or badly scratched.) A bite or scratch that superficially broke the skin should be washed with soap and water, then dabbed with an antibiotic ointment. If the bite or scratch is deep (you can't see the bottom of the wound), a doctor should inspect it.

A bruise will likely develop even after a minor bite. This is a normal part of the healing process. There's a small chance of infection, though, so the parents of the child who was bitten should call their pediatrician if they notice redness, swelling, warmth, pain, or discharge at the site.

After your child's time-out is over, allow her to return to what she was doing when the biting occurred. If you continue to punish her, she'll learn that biting brings extra attention. But watch your child for signs of fatigue, hunger, fear, or anger; if she gets irritable, she may bite again.

Finally, pick a quiet moment later to talk with your child about what happened. Why is biting bad? How does it feel to be bitten? How can you let someone know you're angry without hurting her? Kids of this age need to learn appropriate ways to express their anger.

Why do toddlers bite?

For various reasons, both developmental and emotional. Your toddler is constantly discovering things about her body, so maybe she's curious about what will happen if she bites down especially hard on a piece of bread -- or your hand. Also, toddlers imitate their parents and may well return a "love nibble" on the ear with an enthusiastic chomp of their own. Finally, toddlers often bite when they're angry, frustrated, or exhausted. Very young children generally can't verbalize those feelings, so they resort to behaviors like biting and temper tantrums.

Is biting normal?

Yes, especially among toddlers; most children under the age of 3 have bitten someone at least once. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that nearly half of the 224 children at one daycare center had been bitten one or more times. So don't be shocked or appalled if your child bites someone; just work to extinguish the behavior as soon as possible.

How can I stop my child from biting?

Instead of focusing on punishing the behavior when it happens, try to be proactive. These strategies can help:

  • Lay down the law. Make it clear to your child that she shouldn't bite, period. "It's a family rule: No biting allowed." That means you, too; don't give your child "love bites" when you nuzzle her.
  • Analyze when and why your child bites. This is usually more important than whom she's biting. If she's teething, give her a teething cookie or frozen bagel to chew on. Your child also may bite when provoked. Look for anything in your toddler's social environment that causes stress, such as a play group with too many children or activities that overstimulate her. Change what you can, and work with your child on coping with the rest, so that when she becomes angry she can talk it out instead of acting out.
  • Watch your child closely as she interacts with others. Warning signs, such as crying, yelling, stamping, and lunging, often precede biting. If she begins to show her frustration physically, take her to a quiet place and calmly ask what's wrong.
  • Never bite your child back as a way of teaching her not to bite. Some parents feel that this will drive home the point that biting is painful. But what it really does is show your child the wrong way to deal with aggression -- that is, by becoming aggressive in return. Teach your child to use words to express strong feelings.
  • Demystify biting by simply talking -- not preaching -- about it, or by playing a simple game. Ask your child to tell you some foods she likes to bite. Or you can name everyday objects (a cupcake, a table, a dog, a banana) and she gets to say whether they are okay to bite.

Further Resources

Early Childhood and Parenting Collaborative
http://ecap.crc.illinois.edu

References

Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D, and Sidney M. Baker, M.D. Child Behavior: The Classic Child Care Manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. 1992. Harper Paperbacks.

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