Perhaps you’ve heard that sometimes when a shark takes a bite out of something, it’s an exploratory bite. Perhaps the same can be said about toddlers when they bite and hey, at least with a toddler we know that there’s no risk of being completely digested or losing pints of blood- right? Even if it may not be completely malicious, most toddlers will bite at some point in their little lives. It goes right along with that precious stage of hitting and kicking. It’s a developmental issue but not something that you should make too big of a deal out of. I’m not suggesting that biting people is okay, far from it. But there are definitely things that you should (and should not) do when your toddler bites.
The majority of toddlers engage in some biting between their first and third birthdays. Probably the most common reason is that it is one of the few ways of communicating that’s effective for them, before verbal skills are developed. However, not all children bite. Some choose other forms of communication, such as grabbing, shoving, or punching.
Another reason toddlers bite is to express frustration, a feeling which is very common with toddlers, because both their communication skills and their motor skills are so limited.
To a young toddler it can be funny to see mommy suddenly bolt upright or for a playmate to start crying. Toddlers may also bite because they’re teething or because they put everything in their mouths anyway, so why not someone’s arm? It could even be something as simple as hunger.
But how do you teach your child not to bite? Make it perfectly clear that the biting is hurtful and wrong and point out to your child how much pain their biting has caused. Express that biting is wrong and unacceptable and that neither mommy or daddy like it.
If you discover that your child is biting out of frustration, try giving them an alternative to express to people they are having a difficult time. Though language is a difficult task at this age, most toddlers can be taught words that are appropriate for such a situation. For instance, “You need to tell mommy or daddy that you need help and not bite us,” or “Show mommy what you need, but don’t bite. You’ll hurt her if you bite and I know you don’t want to hurt mommy, do you?”
The first rule of thumb, is not to overreact. While there are different schools of thought on spanking, this is not a situation where it is appropriate, and can only add fuel to the fire. A time-out is in order, generally about two minutes worth on a chair where they can’t stomp on the floor, or kick anything. This also gives you a chance to calm down. During the time-out, do not speak to them, but do explain when you sit them down, that this time-out is because they have bit/hit/kicked someone and that is not allowed.
When the time is up, explain to them again, that the behavior is not acceptable, because it hurts other people. It’s not of much use to ask them how they would feel if someone bit them, since a toddler is unlikely to be able to relate cause and effect, then apply it to themselves. But a non-confrontational “punishment”, and explanation, tells them what they did wrong, and what will happen if they do it again.
If they go right out and repeat the action, take them back for another time-out. Depending on the age of the child, you can explain the concept of apologies, and why they should make one. Use positive reinforcement by praising them for an apology (even if it comes as a kiss), or for going right out and giving their toy to the child they kicked.
Experts agree that parents should try not to give biting so much attention that it becomes an attention-getter. This is true of all behavior that you don’t want to see repeated. Firmly tell the child again that there is no biting allowed, that it is wrong, and that it hurts people.
While Squeaker hasn’t done this too much, I remember the first time she bit someone. And it wasn’t me or anyone in the family, but rather she bit herself. She was in the midst of tantrum and firmly bit down on her hand. Of course, this only escalated her tantrum because now she had a bit of pain to go along with whatever it was that set her off in the first place.
As calmly as possible, I took her hand out of her mouth and waited for her tantrum to pass. When she tried to put her hand back in her mouth, I would remove it again.
The next time she bit someone, it wasn’t herself but it was me. I was surprised, of course, but I tried my best to remain calm. She has bitten me in the past but that was accidental when she was nursing. She’s intentionally bitten me twice and both times were purposeful- she wanted my attention. That was all there was to it. She didn’t break skin, she didn’t draw blood, and there was nothing malicious about her actions.
She wasn’t trying to hurt me, she just wanted my attention.
With both biting incidents, we used similar methods.
- I removed myself from the situation and put her down in her quiet tent.
- She stayed in her tent for a minute or two (long enough for her and me to calm down).
- Once she had calmed down enough, I picked her up and put her on my lap. I explained to her that it hurt and that we don’t bite.
- Then I asked her how she was feeling and offered her a few choices.
Granted, Squeaker is not yet 2, so she doesn’t always understand why she’s being put in her quiet tent but she only goes in her quiet tent during tantrums and related outbursts. And even if she doesn’t always understand what we talk about afterwards, it at least gets her in that routine. I also think that helping her understand how she feels or giving her words to express herself are a huge help.
Squeaker has yet to bite herself or anyone else since her second biting incident though I won’t say for certain that this particular phase has passed. It could happen again at any moment. And while it’s not okay for her to do it, at least we have a plan in place for when she does bite.
What advice would you share for when your toddler bites?