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When Toddlers Bite

Stephanie Nerges will never forget when her 2-year-old son, Andy, bit another child on the arm during a squabble over a toy. "I was mortified," recalls Nerges, of Langhorne, PA. "I didn't understand what would make him do such a thing."

As vicious as biting may seem, toddlers don't mean to use their teeth as weapons. "They simply don't have the words to express themselves when they get frustrated, so they resort to a primitive form of communication," says John Duby, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the Children's Medical Center, in Dayton.

Biters usually outgrow the impulse by the time they're 3, when their verbal skills have improved enough to use language, not actions, to resolve conflicts. Until then, to nip the behavior in the bud:

Don't make a fuss

Most children enjoy attracting the attention of the adult world—positive or negative—so a dramatic reaction from you will only encourage her to become a repeat offender. "Instead, calmly tell her something like, 'People are not for biting. Sandwiches and apples are for biting,'" recommends Jerold Aronson, M.D., a pediatrician at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, in Philadelphia.

Separate the kids

If your child bites another, put her in a two- to three-minute time-out to let her cool down and allow you to comfort the other child. (If the skin isn't broken, you needn't treat the bite; otherwise, wash the wound out with soap and water.)

Offer alternatives

Later on, tell your child that when she becomes upset, she should tell you so you can help her handle the problem in a better way, advises Dr. Aronson. For example, if your daughter is fighting with her brother over a book, you can step in and have them take turns sharing it. Or encourage her to express her anger in ways that won't hurt anyone, such as punching a pillow.

Put words in her mouth

"Teach your child phrases to express her feelings, such as 'I don't like that,'" says Dr. Duby. While many toddlers are too young to actually say those words, your efforts will at least introduce her to the idea of using language, which will pay off when she's older.

Control her environment

Kids tend to bite when they become overstimulated. You may notice, for example, that your child tends to nip when she's with a group of kids (which can be overwhelming and tiring). Try limiting her playdates to just one or two friends at a time; until she's convinced that biting isn't acceptable,this may be the simplest way to keep chomping in check.