For infants and toddlers, biting may be a form of exploration as they learn about the world through the senses. Children may not have the language to express their feelings and may bite to communicate their frustrations or needs. They may bite when they feel overstimulated, excited, or to obtain attention. They may bite when bored, when responding to changes and transitions, to relieve discomfort from teething, or to experiment with cause and effect.
It is less common for preschoolers to bite, but it may occur as children continue to develop impulse control. It may be a way for preschoolers to communicate if they do not yet have the skills to express their feelings and needs. Biting could be the result of sensory needs. It may also be a way to feel powerful and in control of social situations.
In a calm, yet firm tone, say: “No biting. Biting hurts.” Follow up with: “I can’t let you hurt Johnny” or “Look at Johnny; he is crying because you bit him, and it hurts.” Keep it short and simple.
Console the Victim
Focus most of your attention on the person who is bitten. Soothing this child helps by not reinforcing the behavior through negative attention while at the same time, modeling empathy. Having the biter help comfort and assist in the first aid process is appropriate if both the victim and biter are open to it, and if an adult is available to monitor. Sometimes, it is important to remove the biter from the situation immediately.
If your child is capable of understanding, review alternative strategies. Say: “Mary took your toy. You felt angry. Next time, ask for it back. If she does not, find a grown up to help you.” Reinforce the no biting rule. Help your child learn how to label and express feelings. Tell her “you are really angry! Do you want to take deep breaths or draw a picture?”
If your child bites when overstimulated, manage the environment when possible. Have the television or the radio at lower volume and be mindful of big crowds and loud noises. Create a space in your home with soft items and calming activities to which your child can go when overstimulated or upset. Offer your child a firm hug when overwhelmed. If she has a need for oral input, offer healthy and crunchy snacks throughout
Distraction can be a useful tool as it shifts attention and reduces tension. If you know your child’s trigger, coach her through the situation. “It looks like Bobby is close to your body and you don’t like that. Tell him you need some space.” Practice sharing during low-tension times. Use a timer to take turns. Consider going to your local library to request books about biting. Being tired or hungry can increase irritability which can lead to low frustration tolerance and the act of biting. Stay close to your child when he may be prone to bite. Staying close helps him feel secure and makes you more available to intervene.
Biting typically stops around 3½-4 years of age as children gain self-control and an increased ability to problem solve. If your child continues to bite or the behavior worsens, you may want to consider speaking to your child’s doctor.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator.