As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the common behaviors of toddlers, such as hitting and tantrums. However, when my child gets bitten at daycare or bites another child, it becomes a very concerning situation. It can be difficult to differentiate between normal developmental phases and actions that may lead to more serious consequences. Here is what parents should know about toddler biting: why it happens, what to do in both situations, and how to redirect your child to safer forms of expression.
When do toddlers start biting and why does it happen?
Most experts agree that biting is a normal part of childhood development, typically occurring between the ages of one and three. Toddlers may bite when they are teething, as it may provide temporary relief for swollen gums. Biting can also be a way for toddlers to express themselves physically or emotionally, especially 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 get attention from adults before they have language to express frustration,” explains Dr. Colleen Greene, a pediatric dentist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
The part of a toddler’s brain that regulates emotions is underdeveloped, which means they do not yet have the skills to manage strong feelings of frustration or anger. Biting can be a response when their nervous systems go into fight-or-flight mode. Sometimes, biting is also a form of sensory-seeking behavior for toddlers, similar to how adults chew gum or snack while working. It can be a way for them to calm themselves down.
“Children bite in order to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need of some sort,” adds Audra Nelson, a speech-language pathologist. “Very often, 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 keep in mind if their child is bitten by another child?
If your child is the one who got bitten, it is important to attend to their needs immediately if you are present. You may want to wash the affected area with soap and water, and if the bite is bleeding, consult with your pediatrician as a precaution. Talk to your child about what happened and assess if any additional conversations are needed.
“Let them know that it’s okay to feel upset or scared and that you are there to support them,” says pediatric occupational therapist Emma Hubbard. “Depending on the severity of the bite and the circumstances, it may be appropriate 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 focus on finding a solution that ensures the safety and well-being of both children. Keep in mind that some children who bite may also have challenges with self-regulation or be neurodivergent. Despite the seriousness of biting, it is likely that the parents of the child who bites are already stressed about the situation. Work together with them to identify strategies to reduce opportunities for biting in the future.
What if your child is the biter?
If your child is the one who is biting, it is important to understand that it does not mean you are a bad parent or that your child is bad. Biting is a sign that your child is still learning how to manage strong emotions.
“Instead of feeling guilty, try to determine the cause of the biting behavior so you can redirect it,” suggests Audra Nelson. Consider what triggers the biting incidents, whether they occur before or after certain activities, and what your child may be trying to communicate through biting. Have different responses prepared for different situations.
“For attention-seeking biting, focus more attention on the child who was bitten (‘Are you okay? I am so sorry that happened to you’),” says Nelson. “When speaking to 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 trying to communicate 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 implement to provide children with alternative choices to biting, although it may require some trial and error. For teething-related biting, look for ways to alleviate discomfort or pain. Dr. Greene suggests offering 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 appropriate 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 example, 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.” Try 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.