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Ouch! He Bit Me!

What do you say when a parent asks if she should bite her child back? That’s an easy one for many early interventionists – no, definitely don’t bite the baby back. Knowing what to DO about toddler biting, however, can be more tricky. Let me tell you a story about my son’s first bite…
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When my son was a toddler, I remember picking him up and before I knew it, he had chomped down on my left shoulder with his sharp little baby teeth. Without thinking, I yelped a great big “ouch!” I pulled him off of me and I’m pretty certain that I had an incredulous look on my face. I was shocked – that he bit me and by how much it hurt. He hadn’t been upset at all, or at least I had missed any cue that the bite was coming. Despite all that I knew about toddler development, I had no idea what to do in that instant. After my reflex reaction, I tried to recover with a firm, calm “no biting” but it was way too late. He’d already seen the effect he had and it was pretty awesome. I learned that knowing what to do and doing it in that instant were something completely different. He learned that mama makes a pretty cool noise when he bites. Not good!

I did some thinking about why he bit me and what to do the next time, because I was pretty sure it would happen again – and I was right. Thinking about the ABCs of the biting behavior: what causes a bite and why it happens (antecedent), what the biting behavior represents for the child (behavior), and the consequence of the bite are all important. Let’s look at each of these, because changing something about any of them can make the difference between having a toddler who continues to bite and one who learns not to.

The ABCs of Biting

Antecedent – A parent can often figure out why a child bit by looking at what was happening just BEFORE the bite occurred. Did another child take his toy? Was he chewing on a teether and your hand got in the way? Was he trying to communicate but he doesn’t have the words? Does he always bite the same person or at the same time of day? Sometimes the reasons for biting are obvious. In my son’s case, it wasn’t, so I needed to look at the behavior itself.

Strategies: Help parents learn to watch for signs that a bite is coming, like the child opens his mouth and is leaning in, drooling, or already biting other things.

  • If he’s about to bite, give him something acceptable to bite, like a teether or other toy.
  • Use words like, “you can bite your bear” to direct his need.
  • Try distracting him with another activity.

Behavior – First, it’s important to remember that the toddler doesn’t know that it’s not okay to bite. He’s not being mean or intentionally trying to hurt. Afterall, he’s spent months biting his toys, his own hands, his bottle, etc. Biting is one of the ways he learns. He also loves experimenting with cause and effect. There are many other reasons for biting such as being frustrated, tired, needing attention, needing oral stimulation or teething. Every behavior has a purpose; when a parent can determine that purpose, it’s much easier to substitute in a more appropriate, less painful behavior. It’s also easier to understand what’s happening and avoid taking it personally – which can happen because no parent wants to be hurt by her child.

Strategies: Do your best to understand the reason for the bite, then help the family make changes based on it.

  • If the toddler’s tired, encourage the family to make sure he gets a good nap or move to an earlier bedtime.
  • If he’s frustrated because of communication, help him learn to use simple signs and offer choices to make communication easier.
  • If he needs attention, encourage the parent to spend extra time with him in a positive, fun way.
  • If he’s teething, talk with the family about offering something he can bite to relieve his discomfort.
  • Help the parents teach the child other ways to interact too, like how to kiss or how to touch gently.
  • Praising the positive, appropriate behavior is one of the most effective ways to deal with a problem behavior too, even in very young children. 

Consequence – Often, like in my case, a child who bites gets a big reaction. It may be a negative one, but it’s often impressive. Even when a child is scolded for biting, he’s still getting attention. Maybe he bites and his mother assumes he’s hungry so gives him a cracker, which he interprets as a reward. Maybe he bites and it makes his gums feel better. Maybe it’s just a release of frustration. Whatever happens after the bite must be purposeful, which isn’t always easy as I learned, because otherwise, the toddler can learn something that wasn’t what the parent intended.

Strategies: Whatever the reason for biting, encourage parents to make sure their reaction is calm, firm, and unemotional.

  • A simple “no biting” and a redirection to distract him might do the trick.
  • Encourage the parent to teach the toddler words such as no, mine, and stop. Teach these words outside of the biting situation too so he learns other ways to communicate. 
  • Support parents in being consistent and patient and assure them that it will eventually go away.

Share this survival tip with parents: most children don’t go to kindergarten still biting others. Mine didn’t, thank goodness.

What other strategies do you suggest for dealing with toddler biting? 

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Resources:

Why Do Toddlers Bite: Finding the Right Response (Zero to Three)

Understanding and Responding to Children Who Bite (NAEYC)

Biting Questions (American Psychological Association)

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10 Comments to “Ouch! He Bit Me!”

  1. I often encourage parents to try to keep their reactions as neutral as possible, and to remove themselves from the situation if they need to (as long as the child is safe). It’s hard to stay calm and respond appropriately when upset! A lack of response may help decrease the biting very quickly.

    • Great strategies, Lauren! Walking away is also a good parent “time-out” – a time for the parent to regroup and calm down. It can serve both purposes!

  2. Here is another good resource that addresses biting behaviors:
    csefel.vanderbilt.edu/documents/biting_parenting_tool.pdf
    It gives guidance to consider patterns of the biting behaviors, to acknowledge the feelings the child might be experiencing causing him to bite, and suggests giving more attention to the victim in the biting situation than the biter.

    • Thanks Kim! CSEFEL resources are always a big help! I think that last strategy is especially important when a toddler bites a sibling or a peer in childcare.

  3. I think your strategies are really clear, Dana. This did remind me of when my younger daughter started biting and unfortunately, her “target” was her older sister. Kinda hard to teach a 4 year old how to neutralize her response b/c WOW, what a great impact a 4 year screeching has on a 1 year old! 🙂

    You are right though. MY response as the mother was important. And, I too am happy to say that as a college FRESHMAN (where did that time go?), she’s pretty good at not biting!

    • Pretty good, huh?! Ha! I think that can be one of the hardest situations to manage – when the toddler bites another child. In my case, I was my son’s only lucky target. I think he got quite a kick out of his screeching mama!

  4. This is such a great topic. It seems that I encounter it all the time. Thank you for your advice. I will share it. Most parents laugh out loud, celebrating their child’s action over and over. They find it extremely funny. I sometimes have to ask parents to reflect about how the biting would look like in other settings when mom is not around to celebrate. Its many times an eye opening experience for the parents to explore the social implications this behavior can have in they children.

    • Great strategy, Belkis! Having a sense of humor is essential to surviving the toddler years, BUT thinking about the implications of laughing/rewarding a behavior is important too, in other situations, with other people, and even when the child is older. Talking with parents about how much easier it is to teach a very young child appropriate behavior versus trying to “unteach” biting to a preschooler can be another similar discussion.

  5. Very good discussion on biting which is a very common behavior that occurs. It is so important to address it with the suggestions offered at the very start and at the young age so it does not have to be “untaught later which is more challenging.

    • Thanks Allan! I agree that trying to “unteach” a challenging behavior is so much harder and usually takes longer than tackling it from the beginning. Biting is hard too because it’s easy to take it personally and it can be upsetting for the adult. When parents/child care providers can step back from the event and realize that the child is probably experimenting, communicating and/or just lost control, it can be much easier to tackle right away. When our emotions get tangled up in there, that also makes it harder to manage (speaking as someone who was completely shocked to be bitten…).

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