Biting is a typical behaviour often seen in early years. As children mature, gain self-control, and develop problem-solving skills, they usually outgrow this behaviour. While not uncommon, biting can be an upsetting and potentially harmful behaviour. It’s best to discourage it from the very first episode. This blog will help you to understand the reasons young children bite and give you some ideas and strategies for responding appropriately.
Why do young children bite?
Some children bite instinctively, because they have not developed self-control. For example, when 3-year-old Jacob grabs a doll from his 2-year-old sister Ella, her first response is to bite him and grab the doll. She doesn’t stop to think about other ways to act or the result of her actions. But there are many other reasons why children may bite.
A child might bite to
Relieve pain from teething.
Explore cause and effect (“What happens when I bite?”).
Experience the sensation of biting.
Satisfy a need for oral-motor stimulation.
Imitate other children and adults.
Feel strong and in control.
Act in self-defence.
Communicate needs and desires, such as hunger or fatigue.
Communicate or express difficult feelings, such as frustration, anger, confusion, or fear (“There are too many people here and I feel cramped”).
What can families do to prevent biting?
There are a variety of things that families can do to prevent biting:
Have age-appropriate expectations for your child’s behaviour based on his or her current skills and abilities.
Make sure your child’s timetable, routines, and transitions are predictable and consistent. At meal and bedtimes, try to do things in the same way and at the same times. Young children thrive when they know what will happen next.
Offer activities and materials that allow your child to relax and release tension. Some children like yoga, lights or deep breathing. Offer playdough, foam balls, bubbles, mixing, soft music, and other stress-reducing items.
Use positive guidance strategies to help your child develop self-control. For example, offer gentle reminders, phrased in a way that tells them what behaviours are expected. “Hang up your coat on the hook.” “You can each have a car to play with”
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.
How should I respond when my child bites?
While every situation is different, here are some general guidelines for responding when a child bites.
Babies learn about the world around them by exploring it with their hands, eyes, and mouths. Babies often need help to learn what they should and shouldn’t bite.
If your baby takes an experimental bite on a mother’s breast or grandpa’s shoulder, stay calm and use clear signals to communicate that it is not okay for one person to bite another. A firm “stop” or “stop biting!” is an appropriate response.
Toddlers and Pre-schoolers
Toddlers have many strong emotions that they are just learning to manage. Toddlers may bite to express anger or frustration or because they lack the language skills needed to express their feelings.
Biting is less common in pre-schoolers than toddlers. When a pre-schooler bites, it may be due to something at home or at their child care setting that is causing the child to be upset, frustrated, confused, or afraid. A pre-schooler may also bite to get attention or to act in self-defence.
Follow the steps below with both toddlers and pre-schoolers.
If you see the biting incident, move quickly to the scene and get down to children’s level. Respond to the child who did the biting. In a serious, firm tone make a strong statement: “Stop biting. Biting hurts. I can’t let you hurt Josie or anyone else.” Next, offer a choice: “You can help make Josie feel better, or you can sit quietly until I can talk with you.” Help the child follow through on the choice if necessary.
Respond to the child who was hurt by offering comfort through words and actions: “I’m sorry you are hurting. Let’s get some ice.” Perform first aid if necessary. The child who did the biting can help comfort the bitten child—if both parties agree. Help the child who was hurt find something to do.
Finally, talk to the child who did the biting. Maintain eye contact and speak in simple words using a calm, firm tone of voice. Try to find out what happened that led to the incident. Restate the rule, “Biting is not allowed.” Model the use of words that describe feelings: “Lily took your ball. You felt angry. You bit Lily. I can’t let you hurt Lily. No biting.” Discuss how the child can respond in similar situations in the future.
What strategies can I use to help my child overcome a habit of biting?
Observe your child to learn where, when, and in what situations biting occurs. Sometimes an adult may need to stay close to the child to prevent biting.
Pay attention to signals. Stay close and step in if your child seems ready to bite.
Suggest acceptable ways to express strong feelings. Help your child learn to communicate her wants and needs (“Amy, tell your sister you were still playing with the truck”).
Use a reminder system to help your child learn to express strong feelings with appropriate words and actions (“Tell Charlie that you don’t like it when he gets that close to you”).
Reinforce positive behaviour by acknowledging child’s appropriate words and actions (“You didn’t like being tickled so you used your words to ask me to stop”).
At Wriggles & Giggles we will help and support you and your early years with all learning and development including biting. Please don’t hesitate to talk anything through with Melissa. You will receive no judgement only support and care.
We meet Mondays Yarm, Wednesdays Hartburn & Thursdays Ingleby Barwick 10 – 11.30. You can book on the book page on the website or use this link:
Provide opportunities for your child to make choices and feel empowered.
Be sure your behaviour expectations are age-appropriate and individually appropriate for your child. Expecting a child to do something he or she is not able to do can cause children to feel stress. Stress can lead to biting.
Offer foods with a variety of textures to meet your child’s sensory needs.
Teach your child words for setting limits, such as “stop,” or “that’s mine.”
Be aware of what triggers your early years frustration. Carry with you hidden distraction toys like fidget toys that will help to calm and distract your early years. Something they can bite or squish. Chew Buddies are ideal around a parents/carers neck available at all times.
Be aware that many children especially early years can feel over stimulated with lights, sounds and expectation and may just need some quiet time every hour or two so be aware of this in group situations and on outings and seek out a quiet area for them to self-regulate and stay in this area together quietly until they show signs of being ready to return to the group environment.
What strategies are not helpful?
These strategies should not be used to address a child’s biting habit.
Avoid labelling a child as a “biter.” Negative labels can affect how you view your child, and even affect the child’s feelings about him- or herself.
Never bite a child back to punish or show him how it feels to be bitten. Biting a child sends the message that using violence is an acceptable behaviour that can be used to solve problems.
Avoid getting angry, yelling, or shaming a child.
Avoid giving too much attention to a child who bites after an incident. While this is usually negative attention, it can still reinforce the behaviour and cause a child to repeat it.
Do not force a child who bit and the child who was hurt to play together.
Do not punish children who bite. Punishment does not help children to learn discipline and self-control. Instead, it makes children angry, upset, defiant, and embarrassed. It also undermines the relationship between you and your child.