Being a mother of three young children, I am well acquainted with the typical behaviors of toddlers, such as striking and outbursts. Nevertheless, when my child is bitten at daycare or bites another child, it becomes a worrying situation. It can be challenging to distinguish between normal developmental phases and actions that may lead to more serious repercussions. Here is what parents need to understand about toddler biting: why it occurs, what to do in both scenarios, and how to guide your child toward safer forms of expression.
At what age do toddlers commence biting and what are the reasons behind it?
The general consensus among experts is that biting is a standard aspect of childhood development, usually manifesting between the ages of one and three. Toddlers may bite when they are teething, as it might offer momentary relief for swollen gums. Biting can also serve as a way for toddlers to physically or emotionally express themselves, particularly when they are still learning how to effectively communicate their feelings through words.
“Toddlers are still learning to express feelings effectively through words, so biting may be a way to grab attention from adults before they have language to express frustration,” states Dr. Colleen Greene, a pediatric dentist and representative for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
The section of a toddler’s brain that regulates emotions is not fully developed, meaning they do not possess the skills to manage intense feelings of frustration or anger. Biting can be a reaction when their nervous systems enter fight-or-flight mode. Occasionally, biting is also a type of sensory-seeking behavior for toddlers, akin to how adults chew gum or snack while working. It can be a method for them to calm themselves down.
“Children bite to tackle a challenge or fulfill a need of some kind,” adds Audra Nelson, a speech-language pathologist. “Frequently, biting is not due to aggression but due to an imbalance in the sensory system, poor self-regulation, impulse control, or lack of communication. They may bite to express a strong feeling, communicate something like ‘pay attention to me,’ or imitate after seeing another child bite.”
What should parents consider if their child is bitten by another child?
If your child is the victim of a bite, it is crucial to promptly tend to their needs if you are present. You may want to cleanse the affected area with soap and water, and if the bite is bleeding, consult with your pediatrician as a precaution. Have a conversation with your child about what transpired and evaluate whether any further discussions are necessary.
“Let them know that it’s alright to feel upset or scared and that you are there to support them,” suggests pediatric occupational therapist Emma Hubbard. “Based on the severity of the bite and the circumstances, it may be suitable to communicate with the parents or caregivers of the child who did the biting. This can help address any underlying issues or ensure that both parties are aware of the situation.”
Approach this conversation with empathy and concentrate on finding a resolution that ensures the safety and well-being of both children. Bear in mind that some children who bite may also struggle with self-regulation or have neurodivergent traits. Despite the gravity of biting, it is probable that the parents of the child who bites are already stressed about the situation. Collaborate with them to pinpoint strategies to diminish opportunities for biting in the future.
What if your child is the biter?
If your child is the one doing the biting, it is important to recognize that it does not imply you are a deficient parent or that your child is bad. Biting is an indication that your child is still learning how to manage intense emotions.
“Rather than feeling guilty, endeavor to ascertain the cause of the biting behavior so you can redirect it,” recommends Audra Nelson. Consider the triggers for the biting incidents, whether they occur before or after specific activities, and what your child may be attempting to convey through biting. Prepare different responses for different situations.
“For attention-seeking biting, divert more attention to the child who was bitten (‘Are you okay? I am so sorry that happened to you’),” states Nelson. “When addressing the child who bit, use the same language each time (‘biting hurts’). Redirect them to a different activity and praise them for behaving positively (‘great job playing nicely’). If the child was attempting to convey something, provide them with a more appropriate means of communication (‘biting is not okay, but you can say no if you don’t like something’). If the child has limited verbal skills, practice alternative ways of expressing their feelings during pretend play, such as stomping feet, making mad faces, or putting hands on the hips.”
What can parents and caregivers do to redirect children from biting?
There are several strategies that parents and caregivers can employ to offer children substitute options to biting, although it may entail some trial and error. For teething-related biting, look for ways to alleviate discomfort or pain. Dr. Greene suggests providing firm, rubber teething rings, gently rubbing your child’s gums with a cool, wet washcloth, or trying soft foods like applesauce or yogurt. Consult with your pediatrician for suitable pain relief medication, such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol.
For non-teething issues, pediatric occupational therapist Laura Petrix suggests providing safe alternatives for children to chew on. For instance, say something like, “I can see that your mouth needs something to do. I cannot let you bite my arm, but you can bite on this instead.” Strive to identify specific times or triggers that may lead to biting, and continue teaching your child words to express their feelings with positive reinforcement along the way.
If despite your efforts there is no improvement in behavior, Nelson recommends seeking help from professionals such as your pediatrician, occupational therapist, or speech therapist. They can help identify the underlying causes of biting and provide proactive suggestions to address the issue.