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When Toddlers Bite
A guide to understanding and curbing this upsetting (but normal) toddler behavior
On a recent evening, as I was standing at the kitchen counter checking my email, I felt something pinch my rear end. I spun around and was surprised to find my almost-three-year-old, Ben, looking up and baring his teeth at me. Yep, that was no pinch I'd felt -- he'd just bitten me on the butt. It was the first time he'd bitten anyone -- and luckily the only time (so far). And while I was glad that it had happened to me and not his baby brother or a nursery school classmate, I was still alarmed that it had happened at all.
But, fellow moms of toddlers, take comfort. The good news (and the bad) is that toddler nips are neither uncommon nor unusual. To, uh, bite into this meaty issue, we sought the expert advice of a developmental psychologist, a pediatrician, and an early childhood educator. Read on to find out more from about this disturbing (but normal) phase of development, and how to handle it.
Why Toddlers Bite
Although infants bite primarily as a form of exploration or because of teething pain, toddlers may chomp away for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are malicious. Dr. Claire B. Kopp, Ph.D., author of Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child's Social, Physical, Mental, and Emotional Development in the First Two Years, suggests that, "frustration, temperament, language skills, gender, time of day, and parent sensitivity are all important factors in biting and aggression; there's no single defining characteristic or trait of biters."
Some other reasons might include:
- They're curious
- They want attention
- They're trying to show affection
- They're hungry
- They're anxious or stressed
- They're scared or defending themselves
- They're bored
- They're mad or unhappy
- They're overstimulated or overtired
- They're reacting to changes in their environment
- They're teething
Why It's Normal
"I usually explain to families that biting is an outcropping of children exploring their surroundings -- trying to taste things like toys. It becomes more of a social problem when they try to bite other kids," explains Dr. Paul Horowitz, a pediatrician at Discovery Pediatrics in Valencia, California. "It may be because another child took something, or out of frustration or anger, or it's the terrible two's and other kind of acting out -- they don't have the language necessary to express themselves, so they hit, have a tantrum, or they bite." So, for most children, once they gain the vocabulary necessary to express themselves, the likelihood that they will bite decreases.
Boys Bite More than Girls
"Males typically engage in more acts of physical aggression than females," says Dr. Kopp. "Toddler boys tend to be stronger than toddler girls, and often they may have a smaller repertoire of words." In other words, the inability to verbally express frustration combined with growing physical strength can lead all toddlers, but especially little boys, to lash out.
When It Starts
The terrible two's is really a misnomer; biting is most common in children between 12 and 36 months old, when developmental theorists believe that it serves as a crude form of communication before children acquire enough language to express their emotions, and when most kids are suddenly exposed to many more kids at preschool.
Susan Stephenson, an Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)-trained educator and a director of the Michael Olaf Montessori Company in California, explains: "[Biting] is most common at the stage just before the child bursts into spoken language. He is learning words to express himself and suddenly cannot find just the right ones and instead of using his mouth to speak, uses it to bite." In one study of children in daycare, physical aggression peaked at 24 months of age, at which point 1 in 4 kids engaged in aggressive acts. And the National Association for the Education of Young Children estimates that 1 out of every 10 2-year-olds engages in biting behaviors.
"With the development of language, young children turn to hurtful words and/or ignoring another -- instead of biting -- to diffuse their anger or frustration," says Dr. Kopp. Something to look forward to!
What's Normal, What's Not
You definitely shouldn't freak if your child bites once or twice, but when should panic mode set in?
In Dr. Kopp's view, "a toddler who resorts to hitting or biting once or twice a month is not at risk. The behavior should not be ignored, but addressed in low-key ways. If a toddler hits and or bites several times a week, that is cause for concern."
Also, if a child begins to lose friends because of biting, that in turn may lead to a bad self-image, says Dr. Horowirz. "The child seen as a 'biter' is the one that isn't invited places or can't be in the same playroom as other children." Talk to your child's teacher if this is the case so you can work together to prevent your child from being ostracized.
And, because children should acquire language skills to tell others what's bugging them by age 3 or 4, the problem should naturally clear up by then. If your child's still consistently and frequently biting well into the preschool years, it might be a red flag for tactile dysfunction, where a child responds negatively to touch. Talk to your pediatrician if it continues to be a problem.
How to Handle a Bite
There may be a moment of shock for everyone following a bite. "It's scary for the victim and for the biter," says Dr. Horowitz. While the victim is understandably upset at being bitten, the biter may also be frightened by her own actions. And of course, it may be scary for you, too. Nobody wants their child to be known as a "biter," right?
But try to put yourself in your child's shoes and treat them the way you'd want to be treated if you did something you were ashamed of. Stephenson adds, "Would you like to be labeled as a an unkind person, or would you prefer for someone to acknowledge that you are undergoing stress and already feel bad about the unkind thing you did?"
Here are some Do's for dealing with the biter immediately post-bite:
- Remain calm.
- Let her know this is unacceptable, telling the biter, "We don't do that" in a firm tone, suggests Dr. Horowitz.
- Put her in a time-out, he suggests, depending on the age of the child. Time-outs can be used for kids as young as 1 (and should last one minute per year of age), but may not be truly effective until some time after age 2.
- Re-direct the biter if they're too young for a time-out.
What Not to Do
It's natural to let emotion take over, but how you handle the situation now may help you to avoid future incidents. "The important thing is to not set up a victim-aggressor situation," says Stephenson. "In order to prevent this labeling of one child as bad, and the other as the victim, the caregiver should treat each child with the same sympathy. 'I am so sorry that you have been hit and are hurting,' and 'I am so sorry that you were angry enough to hit your friend.'"
Here are some additional Don't's for talking to the biter post-bite:
- Don't try to explain why biting is wrong; it's likely beyond the child's comprehension.
- Don't scream at the child -- and of course, never hit.
- Don't bite the child in attempt to show him that it hurts.
- Don't try to get the biter to empathize with his victim; it's too abstract of a concept, says Dr. Horowitz.
- Don't try to force an apology. "The old-fashioned 'Hug your sister and say you are sorry,' teaches a child to lie, and is more likely to cause further anger than forgiveness," says Stephenson.
- Don't make a big deal out of it. "Depending on how you handle it, you can actually reinforce the behavior," says Dr. Horowitz. "By giving the biting too much attention -- positive or negative -- you can lead your child to bite again."
Dealing with the Bitee
After what was surely a scary incident, it's important to offer both physical and emotional comfort to the child who was bitten. Here are some good first steps:
- Offer first aid to the child. If the skin hasn't been broken, wash it with soap and warm water. If the skin has been broken, run it under the faucet to flush it out, clean it with soap, and apply an antibiotic ointment and bandage. If there is blood present, call your pediatrician, who may want to prescribe an oral antibiotic. Keep an eye on the skin around the bite marks, and call your doctor if it starts to go red over time.
- If the child is crying, pick him/her up, and if possible sit him/her on your lap or on a chair or couch, suggests Dr. Kopp.
- Empathize with the child, suggests Dr. Horowitz, and do what you can to keep the child from biting back (which is fortunately not usually an issue). Let him know you are genuinely concerned.
Interaction between Parents
Should you apologize to the parents if your kid goes all vampire on a friend? Or do you need to stand up for your kid if they got bit? There's no etiquette guide for handling this one, and it's really up to you if you even want to bring it up at all. It might depend on how well you know the other parent, how effectively the teacher handled it (if it happened at school), and if it's the first or tenth time it's happened. If you do decide to address it with the parents, make sure you do so without anger and without placing blame, says Dr. Kopp.
In biting, the best defense is a good offense. Be proactive in watching your child so you can recognize and avoid situations which trigger aggression, like a particular playmate, fatigue at the end of the day, or a friend grabbing a toy. "When you see that the child is about to bite, that's the time to re-direct him to a less frustrating situation," says Dr. Horowitz.
In my case, I'm trying to limit email checking until after Ben's bedtime and offer him my full attention so that we can nip this problem in the bud -- instead of me getting nipped in the butt.
If you're dealing with a biter -- or want to make sure your child doesn't become one -- you may want to subtly incorporate these lesson-teaching books into your bedtime reading:
- Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick (baby to preschool)
- No Biting! by Karen Katz (baby to preschool)
- No Biting, Louise by Margie Palatini (preschool to Grade 1)
- Don't Bite Your Friends! by Lisa Rao (Yo Gabba Gabba; preschool to Grade 2)