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As babies grow into toddlers, they constantly develop new behaviors. Some of these are adorable but others… not so much. While you likely love their mispronunciations and slobbery kisses, biting is a not-so-cute habit that some children pick up.
Despite their small size, babies and toddlers can have a mighty bite, and you’ll want to resolve the problem quickly. Biting can not only lead to painful experiences for you, their siblings, and their playmates but also bigger problems for playgroups or daycare.
We’re here to explore the reasons why toddlers bite and offer tips to help break the habit.
A biting toddler can be painful, frustrating, and test your patience, especially if you don’t know what to do to make it stop. Remember, though, your reaction will have either a positive or negative effect on the situation.
There isn’t a single way to stop a toddler from biting, so it might take multiple strategies to get the problem under control. Here’s are some options to try:
1. Keep your cool
It’s important to remain calm, yet firm. You want to make it abundantly clear that biting is unacceptable, but at the same time, don’t lose your composure.
If you raise your voice or get angry, your toddler may get angry, too. And if you overexplain the reasons not to bite, your child might tune out or feel overwhelmed. The best thing you can do is keep it simple.
Address the issue each time it happens, firmly reiterating that biting hurts and isn’t allowed. You can say something like “no biting” or “stop biting” and immediately and calmly move the biting child to where they cannot bite again. Consistent correction can help curb the behavior.
2. Provide comfort
Help toddlers understand that biting hurts others. So if your child bites a playmate or sibling, comfort the victim.
If your child observes you giving the victim attention, they may eventually make the connection that biting hurts, as well as that it does not garner attention or a big reaction.
On the flip side, if your toddler “gets it” and becomes upset upon realizing that they hurt their friend or sibling, you should comfort them, too. Still, the primary focus should remain on the victim, and you can remind the biter that their actions hurt someone else.
3. Teach them ways to express themselves
Young children often bite because they can’t talk or express themselves well (or at all). When they feel frustrated or scared or even happy, they sometimes express those big emotions by resorting to a bite.
If your toddler is old enough, suggest that they use their words instead of biting. For example, your child might bite a playmate who tries to take a toy. To avoid biting, train your toddler to tell playmates “no” or “stop” when things don’t go their way.
If this doesn’t work and your child continues to bite, remove them from the situation. Losing the chance to play with their friends can serve as a consequence to help them remember to use their words next time.
If you’re unable to remove them from the situation, it’s best to watch very carefully so you can immediately address and defuse another biting incident.
When biting continues, you can also try timeouts. For this to work, though, you must be consistent.
This involves putting your child in timeout every time they bite, so that they’ll know that biting has consequences. As far as how long they should stay in timeout, one recommendation is 1 minute for every year of age.
A two-year-old child would receive a 2-minute timeout, whereas a five-year-old chile would receive a 5-minute timeout.
Note that timeouts don’t have to be thought of as discipline. They’re just a way to take the child away from the situation that led to the biting and let their emotions calm down. It also keeps them from immediately biting again. This can be done calmly even the first time a child bites.
5. Model good behavior
Help your toddler learn what’s acceptable behavior by demonstrating it for them. When they do something like snatch away a toy or hit, calmly say “I don’t like that” while redirecting them toward a better behavior.
What not to do
Some people will inevitably suggest biting a child back, so they can see how it feels. However, no evidence supports the effectiveness of this method.
Additionally, consider how it sends mixed messages. Why is it bad for them to bite but acceptable for you to bite? Instead, focus on the underlying cause to discourage further biting.
Yes, biting is a typical childhood behavior. Yet, the reasons for developing a biting habit can vary from child to child.
The first thing to remember is that toddlers cannot express themselves like older children and adults can. Given that they have limited communication skills, they sometimes resort to biting as a way to release their feelings of anger and frustration, or even of joy or love.
The good news is that biting is almost always a temporary problem. It improves as children become older and learn self-control and better communication skills.
It’s also important to be mindful of other reasons why a child might bite.
Babies and toddlers might bite if they’re hungry, fatigued, or overwhelmed.
Other children simply imitate what they see other kids do. So if there’s a child in daycare who bites, don’t be surprised if your child tries this at home.
And of course, some kids bite to get attention, inspire a reaction, or test their boundaries.
Even though biting is a common childhood problem, it’s a problem nonetheless.
If you’re unable to get it under control, you risk having your child labeled as a problem or getting kicked out of daycare and playgroups — more so if they hurt other kids.
It might take a few days or even a few weeks, but there are ways to try to prevent biting before it happens.
Look for patterns
In other words, does your child bite in certain situations? After observing your child, you might notice that they bite when they’re tired. If this is the case, cut playtime short if your child shows signs of fatigue.
The pattern may be that they typically bite a certain person, bite during transitions such as from play to less desirable activities, or whenever they feel big emotions. Knowing what precedes the bite can help you deal with the underlying reason before the biting begins.
Despite their young age, it’s a good idea to teach toddlers other ways to control their frustrations. Get them into a habit of saying “no” or “stop” when they don’t like something. This helps children not only develop language skills but also self-control.
Then again, if you believe your child bites because they’re teething and need to self-soothe, give them a teething ring. Also, offering crunchy snacks when your child is hungry or appears to be experiencing teething pain might help curtail a biting problem due to discomfort.
Use positive reinforcement
Some children start biting as a way to get extra attention — and sometimes it works. The problem is that some toddlers start to associate biting with attention, and they continue the habit.
It might help to offer positive reinforcement. If you reward your child with praise for responding to a situation with their words and exercising self-control, they’ll seek the positive attention instead.
Using incentives like sticker charts, where every day without biting earns them rewards, can be a powerful motivation tool for some older toddlers.
Sometimes simply acknowledging their efforts with praise (Read: “I’m so proud that you used your words at our playdate today! Good work being kind!”) can be all the encouragement they need to say goodbye to biting.
If your child’s biting threatens their spot in daycare, talk with your daycare provider and explain the strategies you’re using at home. See if the daycare can implement these strategies and work with you to be proactive while your child is in their care.
Biting is a frustrating problem, but it’s usually a temporary one, as many toddlers outgrow this habit by the age of three or four. Therefore, a persistent habit of biting beyond this age could be a sign of another issue, perhaps problems at school or behavioral issues.
Talk to your child, consult caregivers, and discuss the problem with your pediatrician for guidance.
Biting is probably one of the least adorable habits a child can develop, and it’s important to address this problem as soon as it starts. You can steer your child in the right direction and help them understand — even at a young age — that biting hurts and is unacceptable.