As I sit here rubbing my bruised forearm, courtesy of my lovely nephew, I find myself wondering, why do toddlers bite?
Biting is a means for children to explore the world using their mouths – why a certain texture feels good when chewed on and why some textures feel disgusting.
Of course there are many other ways of exploring the world besides biting – one can look, touch, smell, rub etc. So why do toddlers bite? And maybe more importantly, how do we get them to stop? Let’s dive in.
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Why Do Toddlers Bite?
Toddlers bite for a number of different reasons.
Above all, biting is a way to explore the world using one’s mouth. They use their teeth, tongues, and gums to experience different tastes and textures of surrounding objects.
While babies respond to being held and touched from an early age, the primary senses they use to gather information are their taste and smell systems. Their ability to grab, touch, and hold comes later as their fine motor development improves.
Similarly, a 1 year old biting can be a social experiment. It’s one of the many ways they learn and understand the cause-and-effect relationship. “Will I get mom’s attention when I bite them?” or “Will I get my toy back?”
Biting can also be a way for toddlers to get attention or express how they’re feeling. Frustration, anger, and fear are strong emotions and toddlers lack the language skills to communicate how they are feeling.
So if they can’t find the words they need quickly enough or can’t say how they’re feeling, they may bite as a way of saying, “Pay attention to me!” or “I don’t like that!”
Biting is a way for them to express their emotions and communicate what they want (or don’t want). The question isn’t why do toddlers bite; it’s why do they not use words that could be more productive to express their emotions?
Unfortunately toddlers don’t have words yet and sometimes can get frustrated because of this – things like “I’m hungry”, “I’m sleepy” etc. are very difficult (if not impossible) for a toddler to say. Because of these difficulties expressing themselves verbally, biting is one of the ways your child can ‘talk’ with you.
Finally, biting could be a sign of the oh-so-wonderful teething process. It might simply feel good on their aching gums.
Is it Normal For a Toddler to Bite?
Unfortunately biting is a very normal (albeit frustrating!) form of communication in toddlers.
Since toddlers don’t have well-developed verbal skills yet, it’s very common for them to ‘communicate’ in the form of crying, screams, gestures, and physical expressions like hitting or biting.
Biting occurs more often in boys and tends to be common between the ages of one and two years old. As their language and communication skills improve, biting tends to fade.
Do Toddlers Grow Out of Biting on Their Own?
The good news is yes, most toddlers will grow out of their biting phase by age 4. Generally, by that point their communication skills have improved and they have hopefully found other ways to express themselves. Using the strategies below can help reduce and even stop the biting as quickly as possible.
Despite your best efforts, some kids might continue biting, so if your preschool aged child is still biting, it has become excessive, or is happening with other aggressive behaviors, bring up these concerns to their pediatrician. They can be a good resource to help figure out the specific cause of your child’s biting and problem solve more ways to manage it better.
How Do You Stop a Child Biting Another Child?
There are few moments worse than finding out your is that kid in their daycare or playground. You know, the one that’s biting other kids.
What do you do?
Disciplining your child or punishing them for biting isn’t recommended as the first line of defense. Why not? Because it’s not addressing the answer to the question at hand, why do toddlers bite in the first place?
If they’re exploring the world around them or learning to communicate, they don’t inherently know the act of biting is wrong. After all, toddlers (usually) don’t bite other children to be mean or because they want to hurt them.
Most of the time they do it because they are excited, bored, angry or even curious. Your job as a parent is to help your child understand why it isn’t okay to bite their friends and provide them with another outlet.
First and foremost – stay calm, be firm, and confront the biting right away.
If you see your child biting another child, calmly and firmly say, “no biting!”. Keep it brief and simple – communicate that biting is wrong but save a longer explanation until your child can fully comprehend.
It’s important to not yell or be tempted to bite them back. This only encourages outbursts as a way of communicating frustration.
Then address the recipient of the bite. Make sure they receive plenty of attention and comfort. If the skin is broken, clean the wound and apply a band-aid.
Depending on how emotions are running at the time, you can also encourage the biter to apologize or comfort the victim.
There will always be times when your toddler gets frustrated and lashes out at others without meaning to. Try and use these moments as learning opportunities rather than purely negative experiences.
In the future, pay attention to your toddler when they are interacting with other children to try and sense when they are about to bite.
If you sense they are frustrated, show them alternatives to express themselves. You could teach them to say, “no!” or “that’s mine” before they resort to biting. If their verbal skills are not yet well-developed, show them how to shake their head back and forth to signal ‘no’.
If your toddler tends to bite when excited, instead show them how to cheer or clap their hands to communicate this emotion.
How to Stop Toddler Biting Mom
Ideally you want your toddler to stop biting everyone – themselves, their daycare classmates, and their parents.
When your toddler bites you, make sure to give a loud ‘OW!’ and to stop the activity they were engaged in as soon as possible.
The aim of this strategy is to make your toddler understand that biting hurts and there will be natural consequences for their actions (such as their desired activity being stopped).
For most children, the ‘OW!’ and/or removal of the activity they were engaged in will be enough for them to stop biting, because they are only trying out things with their teeth.
However if your toddler continues biting or does it again later on – attempt to further explain why his/her action was wrong and why it resulted in getting sent away from what they were doing. This will help your toddler understand why biting someone else’s skin is wrong even when they are excited about something.
Additionally while you’re showing disapproval for your child’s biting behavior, make sure you also show approval and affection for behaviors they use for communication at other times. Praise them for “speaking” with gestures – for hugging to show love, clapping to demonstrate excitement, and shaking their head to express displeasure.
What to Do When Your Child Is Bitten at Daycare
It is really upsetting to see bite marks on your child. Unfortunately, biting is pretty common. Since it’s a developmentally normal behavior for toddlers, it’s bound to happen in a group setting. Put a bunch of toddlers in a room and chances of a bite are high.
Your daycare should give you some documentation of the incident and any first aid that was necessary. They also generally can’t tell you the name of the biter, though a verbal child often will.
Biting isn’t always avoidable with a room full of toddlers. Ask the daycare how they handle biting and if they have a plan in place to try to prevent it in the future.
Look out for similarities in the biting incidents like if they occur at a certain time, over certain toys, or with a particular child. If you notice a pattern, be sure to discuss it with the daycare provider to see if they can help avoid the situation or more closely monitor those interactions.
Do Toddlers Bite to Show Affection?
Oddly enough, your toddler bite might be a sign of affection. Toddlers often bite when they’re feeling overwhelmed, but not just by negative emotions.
They could be communicating that they are overwhelmed by positive feelings such as toddlers biting when excited or happy. They’re feeling a strong emotion and don’t know how to express it.
While you may appreciate the sentiment, you’ll still want to curb this painful display of affection.
To deal with happy biting, tell your child that biting hurts and model more appropriate ways to show affection such as hugs. Then be sure to praise your child when they show affection without biting.
Wrapping Up Why Do Toddlers Bite
Hopefully we answered all of your questions surrounding why toddlers bite and how to deal with it. For parents struggling with a biter, keep in mind that it’s a normal toddler behavior. Also using the strategies above can help get through this phase as quickly and hopefully painlessly as possible.
Did we miss anything? How did you handle your toddler biting? Share your strategies in the comments!