Not all young children bite, but, anecdotally, experts say up to a quarter of all children will do so at some stage – mostly between the ages of two and three.
It is a phase that does pass – by four, most children have grown out of it. Some try the odd nip and move on, others grow into serial biters. It doesn’t mean the child is a monster – many biters are otherwise gentle and sociable.
Understanding why a child bites is key to beating the problem. Not all children bite out of anger or to hurt another child – in fact young toddlers can’t really understand how much pain they’re causing.
Experts advise trying to see biting as a way of communicating rather than just bad behaviour – once we do that, we’ve got more choices in how to respond.
Look at who they bite, when they bite and in what situations. And a tailor-made response will be more effective than a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
- Expressing emotion: Oddly enough, young toddlers can bite as a way of showing love.
- Experimenting: Toddlers are learning how their body works – they put things in their mouths, and sometimes nip. It’s impulsive and they don’t mean to hurt. Often, a baby chomps on someone when they’re teething. Sometimes toddlers nip when they’re over-excited.
- Defending: Young children learn to bite as a defence, especially if they can’t talk.
- Controlling: Some children know biting is a way of getting other children – or their parents – to do what they want. They don’t always do this consciously. It may happen when a group of children are jostling to be leader. Sometimes the youngest child in the family bites to gain power. And as any child who’s ever tried it has learnt, biting is a fantastic way of getting attention – and so what if it’s negative?
- Frustrated or irritated: Your child wants a toy back. Or they want a biscuit or adult attention, or can’t cope with a situation. They may not understand turn-taking and sharing. Or things may have changed at home or the child feels under stress. Your child doesn’t necessarily mean to cause harm, but just can’t find the words to express themself.
In all instances, react swiftly, and keep your cool. Don’t ever – ever – bite back or hit – retaliation could be dangerous. But don’t dodge the issue – children need to know immediately that what they have done is wrong.
- Intervene: Open your eyes – look at how intense, how frequent bites are and what the triggers are. One of the best ways is to act before the child has a chance to sink their teeth into anyone. Children often clench their teeth before they bite – an unmistakable sign. Take the child somewhere quiet to calm down. If a teething child is trying out his or her teeth, find toys to chew and chomp on.
- Teach them it’s wrong: When the child bites, use simple but firm words. Try, “that’s biting, that’s wrong” or a firm “no”. If you’re in a group, remove them from the situation. Explain that it hurts others and why you don’t like them doing it.
- Teach them to express themselves: When things have calmed down, try to help the child find a less painful way to express their feelings. This works well with children who are biting to try to show their affection. Likewise, if the child bites out of defence, show them how to tell somebody they don’t want him or her too close – to make the “stop” sign (a hand held up) – or even gently to push the other child’s shoulder – which won’t hurt but gives a clear message. Or teach them to come and find you instead if they’re angry.
- Reduce the effectiveness: When children bite to gain attention, dealing with it is trickier. After the first big talking to, don’t try to continue to reason or explain. Give a firm “no”. Put your body between victim and biter and turn your back on the biter. Give the victim sympathy and the biter a clear message this is an unproductive way of getting attention. If time-out is one of your methods, now’s the time to use it. If the bite was over a toy or treat, remove it for a short while.
- Praise them for good behaviour: Catch the child behaving well – not biting others, playing well in groups, not biting to get his or her way – and be generous with praise. Be specific – try: “how well you’re playing” or “aren’t you kind and gentle to your friend?”
There are a number of reasons methods may not work – there may be something getting in the way of the child learning – perhaps anxiety. Some children learn at different speeds and won’t pick up on things straight away – you might just need to be more persistent.
- Stick with it: Keeping to a plan of action is more difficult than it seems. You need attention, energy, consistency and support. Make sure everyone involved with the child is consistent – young children find it hard when they receive mixed messages
- Give clear commands and be positive: Try not to raise your voice and speak in a firm voice. Don’t overdo explanations: The first bite may be impulsive, but a child soon learns they get an enormous amount of attention. Just say ‘that’s biting, that’s wrong’.”
All young children are leaning how to behave – it is perfectly natural for them to push, grab, yell, hit and bite if they can’t get what they want, or are cross or hurt or anxious.
If your child is bitten try hard not to over-react. Treat your child in the same way that you would if they had been pushed or hit by another child – give them sympathy and cuddles, and treat any bruising as appropriate, but try not to get too emotional. It is only natural to want to protect your child from harm but realistically, they will get many minor injuries as they grow up – it’s part of childhood.
How to treat a bite
If the teeth have drawn blood, stop the bleeding by applying pressure to the area. If your toddler arrives home with a bite mark it's likely to bruise so apply an ice pack to reduce the swelling. Some toddlers will bruise more easily than others but it should clear up within about 10 days.
What to do
It's impossible for your toddler to predict when another toddler might launch in for a bite, so if they are bitten once or twice try not to worry too much. If they do get bitten or come home from nursery with bite marks, talk to the staff, who will look into how to stop it. Although you'll find it upsetting, your child won't remember it later on, especially if you don’t make too much fuss.
Never encourage your toddler to bite back as this will only lead to a battle. Give them lots of love so they don't feel that they were bitten because they are not liked by other people.
How to approach the other child’s parent
If it happens at nursery it's better to let the nursery staff approach the parent. Remember, children are learning about right and wrong and it is very likely that the other child didn’t intend to hurt yours. It's much more effective if you don't judge other parents, and understand that one day it could be your own child who is doing the biting!
The Understanding Childhood website has some useful information