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How to Support a Toddler Who Bites

Biting is one of the most common toddler behaviors. While it may feel frustrating, challenging, and sometimes even worrisome, there are ways to support a toddler through this behavior. In order to do so, it’s important to consider the child’s perspective, or why he or she might be biting, as well as where they are in their development to respond in a sensitive, appropriate, and productive way.

According to Zero to Three’s article, Toddlers and Biting: Finding the Right Response, “children bite in order to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need…Trying your best to understand the underlying cause of the biting will help you develop an effective response. This makes it more likely that you will be successful in eliminating the behavior.”

Why does biting happen? 

Some potential reasons behind this behavior are listed below:

Lack of words to communicate feelings

  • Biting can be a pre-verbal way to express needs or strong feelings like frustration, anger, or even excitement. According to Kids Health, “biting tends to happen most often between the first and second birthday. As language improves, biting tends to lessen.”
  • Children may bite when they become overwhelmed by the sounds, light or activity level in their setting, or when they become over-tired.

Biting as experimentation 

  • An exploration of cause and effect: “What happens if I do this?”
  • Discovering the sensation of biting
  • Seeking reaction or attention

Expression of a need for:

  • more active playtime
  • oral-motor stimulation
  • rest or sleep
  • food

Specific biting causes:

  • Teething
  • Self-defense

How can we prevent this from happening again? 

In order to prevent biting in the future, it can be helpful to take a deeper look at what happened when a child bit in the past. Consider the situation of the previous bite. Take a closer look at what was happening, which children were there and who was bitten, where they were, and what they were doing.

NAEYC suggests that observation is the key to understanding the children in our care. Taking notes of when biting is occurring can help you to find patterns and identify what might be causing this behavior.

What should we do if we witness a child biting? 

Most importantly, remain calm and do not let a child see your frustration, irritation, or worry. While it is okay and normal to feel these things, responding emotionally is usually not a good idea when working with toddlers. Take a moment to ensure that your emotions are under control, and respond in a firm and calm voice, explaining to the child that biting hurts.

Check in on the child who was bitten. According to Zero to Three, “Often when a child bites, adults pay a lot of attention to him or her. This is usually negative attention, but it is still very reinforcing and can actually cause the biting behavior to continue, rather than stop. When…(adults)  shift their focus and energy to the child who was bitten, they clearly communicate that biting does not result in more attention. Showing concern and sympathy for the child who was bitten also teaches empathy.”

In a group care setting, it can be beneficial for caregivers to spend extra time with a child who has been biting. Spending 1:1 time allows the child the individualized attention that he or she might be craving. This time can help the child take a break from the high stimulation of group care and allow for positive interactions with the caregiver. This time can also be helpful for the caregiver, to develop a relationship with the child and have interactions that are not centered around biting or other aggressive behaviors. Children who are regularly biting will often get labeled as the “biter”, and begin to receive only negative attention when they demonstrate this behavior. It is important to avoid labeling children, and also to ensure that the child receives positive attention and reinforcement for more desirable behaviors.

Developmentally Appropriate Responses to Biting

According to NAEYC, it is important to “have age-appropriate expectations for your child’s behavior based on his or her current skills and abilities.” Other NAEYC recommendations include:

  • Making sure schedule and transitions are predictable and consistent. Young children thrive when they know what will happen next.
  • Using positive guidance strategies to help your child develop self-control. For example, offer gentle reminders, phrased in a way that tells them what behaviors are expected. “Be sure to hang up your coat on the hook.” “You can each have a bucket to use in the sandbox.”
  • Provide items to bite, such as teething rings or clean, wet, cold washcloths stored in the refrigerator. This helps children learn what they can bite safely, without hurting anyone else.

Zero to Three recommends the following developmentally appropriate responses:

  1. Support Communication and Language Skills
    1. help the child use words to express feelings appropriately
    2. use positive reinforcement when the child uses words to share feelings or when the child demonstrates using gentle behaviors to play and interact with other children
    3. give age-appropriate choices
  2. Help the Child Cope With Feeling Overwhelmed
    1. Keep television and radio off or on low volumes.
    2. Give a firm “bear” hug when you sense he or she is feeling stressed and out of control and perhaps about to bite. This can help children feel “held together” which can be very soothing.
    3. Create a “cozy corner” with pillows, books and other quiet toys like stuffed animals, or use a play tent as a safe place to take a break. NAEYC also suggests offering activities and materials that allow relaxation and release tension (yoga, play-dough, foam balls, soft music, etc.).
  3. Explain the Effects of Their Actions
    1. Provide immediate, firm, unemotional feedback and 
    2. Help the child understand about cause-and-effect (“It hurt your friend when you bit her.”)

Connecting With Parents

If biting becomes a habit and ongoing positive guidance is not effective, set up a meeting with the child’s parents. It is important for both parents and caregivers to be on the same page about the child’s biting to form a plan and to respond consistently at home and at school.

Tags:   toddlers
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