Few behaviors upset and anger child care providers and parents more than a child who bites. Although many children never bite, biting is not uncommon among toddlers, especially when they are in groups of children. Biting tends to be most common between about 18 months and 3 or 4 years of age.
Common Reasons for Biting
Many adults think of biting as a single behavior, but there are many different reasons why children bite. Here are some of the most common reasons, along with tips for handling each type of biting.
Teething. Infants and toddlers who are teething sometimes chew on things to relieve the discomfort of cutting teeth. Children at this age don’t really understand the difference between chewing on a person or a toy. Giving the child a teething ring or soft cloth to chew on may discourage her from biting people.
Exploration. Young children learn about their world by exploring, and using the mouth to explore is common among infants and toddlers. Because very young children don’t understand the difference between a person and an object, they sometimes bite others when they are exploring. Carefully supervise infants and toddlers making sure they have plenty of objects to explore.
Cause and Effect. Infants and toddlers are learning what happens when they do something. Occasionally a young child will bite simply to see how the other person will react. The biter may even look surprised or startled when the person reacts by screaming or crying. The best response is to comfort the person who was bitten and to tell the biter, "No biting people. Biting hurts." The biter may also need comfort and reassurance. You might also teach older toddlers how to make amends to the person they have bitten — getting a cold washcloth or ice, helping bandage the wound and comforting the victim. But be careful about insisting on apologies. Forcing a child who is not sorry to apologize does not teach positive behaviors.
Attention. Infants and toddlers who are not getting enough positive attention may seek attention in negative ways. Children who bite learn quickly that biting gets a big reaction. The best cure for this type of biting is prevention. Make sure that all children get plenty of positive attention so they won’t need to seek attention negatively. Give every child at least a little one-on-one interaction every day. Lavishing children with positive attention cuts down on negative attention-seeking behaviors such as biting.
Frustration. Most toddlers don’t have the words to express their frustration and may resort to biting instead. Biting can also be a way to release tension. Teach children who are frustrated more positive outlets for their feelings. Encourage them to ride a tricycle really fast, paint a picture with big strokes, pound on play dough or splash water in the water tray. Teach children to say no instead of biting if another child is doing something they don’t like. Let children know that it’s all right to have negative feelings, but biting is not an appropriate way of expressing those feelings.
Imitation. Many toddlers bite simply because they have seen someone else bite first and decide to try it. To avoid this type of biting, make sure all children hear the clear message that biting hurts and is not acceptable. And don’t try to discourage biting by biting the child back; you may just encourage children to imitate the biting.
For More Information
To learn more about handling biting in child care, and more information about young children's social and emotional development, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles:
Photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/14142385124/ on 9/3/2015. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. Photo posted to Flickr by Quinn Dombrowski on May 8, 2014 with title "Teething".