- Jason Steadman, Psy.D.
When Toddlers Bite
Biting is an extremely common behavior in toddlers. It’s not your fault as a parent, and it’s not their fault as a child. It is a natural, instinctual behavior – probably a primitive reflex – that happens in most children and can happen in any child.
But, just because biting is natural and common doesn’t mean you should ignore it. In fact, there are simple things you can do to help teach your child how to use his or her teeth properly! Why does my child bite?
Bites can happen for many reasons, but I put them in three basic categories: Emotional bites, tactile bites, and teething bites.
Emotional bites are usually the most problematic ones (the ones you get called about from daycares), because they usually involve biting another person (or biting the self). Emotional bites can stem from both negative emotions (frustration, anger, fear, etc.) and positive emotions (excitement, playfulness, etc.). This type of biting is a form of communication, and so, the best response to these bites is to find out what emotion is driving them and then work to teach your child a proper way to express that emotion (see below for more on this).
A second type of biting I call a “tactile bite.” Biting produces an interesting sensation, and many times, toddlers are just exploring what that sensation feels like on different surfaces. It’s a way for toddlers to explore and understand their world, and it’s one reason we parents have to keep an eye on our toddlers and lock up cabinets, because sometimes they may put things in their mouth that don’t belong, just to see what it feels or tastes like.
A third type of biting is a “teething bite.” Similar to a tactile bite, a teething bite is mainly sensation seeking. However, whereas a tactile bite is done because it’s interesting or to explore the world, a teething bite is done to provide relief from discomfort or pain (due to teething). Teething bites are easy to spot because they come with other telltale signs of teething, like excessive drooling, irritability, and, of course, the eruption of tooth buds through the gums.
What do I do when my child bites?
Generally, the rules are the same across all types of bites. For all types of bites, I recommend a 3-step process: 1) Use selective attention and active ignoring, 2) Figure out the reason for the bite, and 3) teach a proper replacement-behavior
1) Use selective attention and active ignoring. Selective attention means that you are being careful and purposeful about how you give attention to your child. Mainly, with biting, selective attention means you try to not react with anger or other intense emotion. Small children crave attention from adults. In fact, small children are biologically wired to do as much as possible get your attention as an adult, because attention from an adult means someone to take care of the child, and children need care to survive. Attention is also rewarding. When you pay attention to your child, they will remember that whatever they were doing got your attention, and they will be more likely to do it again. So, when you react emotionally to a bite, this emotion shows them that a bite will get your attention. This doesn’t mean, though, that you should ignore bites and not respond at all to them. Active ignoring does not mean you don’t give your child any attention. It just means that you spend as little time as possible on the bite, and instead spend more time on teaching better behaviors. So, you can actively ignore a bite by saying to your child, in a calm and neutral tone, “Ouch! It’s not okay to bite.” Immediately after you set the neutral boundary, you should then teach the child something else do to instead and then give them selective attention for that replacement behavior (see #3)!
2) Figure out the reason for the bite. See the different types above. Once you know the reason, you can choose the most appropriate replacement behavior.
3) Teach a replacement behavior. Once you’ve decided a bite is unacceptable and you’ve told your child biting isn’t okay, next you have to teach them what is okay. Try to keep this direction simple. Don’t use a lot of words. Just make short suggestions. Here are some examples:
a. For a frustration bite, you can teach children to sing a song to calm down. Even better, if they’ve bitten another child, you can get the child to help you take care of the “victim” to provide comfort, perhaps by giving ice, singing a song together, or saying sorry and giving a hug. Be sure to reward your child for the replacement behavior.
i. For more ideas on helping children cope with different emotions, see our other handout “Coping Skills for Kids.”
b. For an excited bite, you can say, “Oh, you’re so excited! Let’s dance together!” (or any other exciting activity)
c. For a tactile or teething bite, you can give them something that is okay to chew on, such as a strong cloth or teething toy. Of course, just be sure this thing doesn’t have any small parts and/or isn’t damaged such that it might come apart in your child’s mouth. Also, don’t use any fluid filled teething toys.
If you remember these three steps, your child’s biting should stop eventually, but it won’t stop right away. Give it time and try to be consistent. If you ever need more help, don’t hesitate to reach out.
1) My 4-y.o. son just bit his little brother after arguing over a toy. The bite left a mark. Should I put him in timeout?
I don’t generally recommend using timeout for most aggressive biting towards others. Biting is a short, impulsive (uncontrolled) behavior. Timeouts are usually excessive for short bursts of bad behavior. Instead, short bursts of bad behaviors are best addressed through active ignoring and selective attention, while teaching replacement behaviors. If biting is repetitive (not occurring in bursts) – for example, if your child bites 3 times in 10 minutes – a timeout may be more appropriate. In this case, keep timeout short, and follow other rules of effective timeout.
Briefly, timeout should be about 1-minute per year of age of the child, up to 5 minutes. The timeout “timer” starts once the child is compliant with timeout, for example, sitting in the timeout spot, and staying (relatively) quiet. Children in timeout are allowed to whimper if they’ve been crying. They do not have to be totally silent. Don’t talk to your child while they’re in timeout, except to remind them of the rules right at the beginning. Set a timer and as soon as the timer is done, release your child from timeout and re-group. During the re-grouping time after timeout, have the child practice a positive replacement behavior, and reward them for that (with, for example, a smile, a hug, a high five, etc.).
2) My 18-month-old daughter bites me over and over again and then laughs about it. She thinks it’s a game, but it hurts! When she bites me, I say, “Ow! Stop it!” in a loud voice and I make an angry face so she knows not to bite me, but she still does it. The only way I can get her to stop is to give her paci.
There’s a lot happening here. In this case, the child probably actually does see this biting as a game. It probably started innocently. Maybe she bit her mother on accident once and she liked the mother’s reaction, so, she did it again. Eventually, she learned that the more she bit, the more fun it was, until eventually she got her paci, which she loved. In this case, I would suggest that the parent be more neutral and concrete in her directions. The command to “Stop it!” is not a good command. It doesn’t tell the baby what to stop, and, more importantly, it doesn’t tell the baby what to do instead. A better command would be to say, “No biting!” and then also add, “Do you want your paci?” Wait for a response and then teach the child how to ask for paci either by vocalizing “Paci” or using a hand sign for the pacifier. This video shows a common sign for pacifier.
If the child does not want her paci, ask if she wants to play a game (e.g. Peek-a-Boo). Teach her how to ask for Peek-a-Boo, again, by either vocalizing Peek-a-Boo or by using a gesture (such as covering her face). Once she has produced the right vocalization or request (or close enough to it), then you give her what she wants.
3) Should I punish my child for biting?
No. Punishment is not an effective way to shape behavior in toddlers/young children. It works in the immediate situation, but not long-term. Babies and young children are especially reward oriented and do not have the ability to weigh a reward versus a punishment. In other words, for a toddler, if they see a potential reward, they will go for it, without even thinking about the possible punishments that may happen. So, don’t punish. Instead, use the steps mentioned above (selective attention, active ignoring, and rewarding positive alternatives).
4) Should I bite my child back to show him or her how it feels?
No. This teaches the child that biting is an acceptable behavior. “If Mommy or Daddy do it, so can I!” The same goes for any other form of corporal punishment (spanking, pinching, slapping, etc.). These behaviors only tell your child that aggression is an acceptable way to get someone to stop doing something you don’t want them to do. Corporal punishments have been heavily researched and are consistently found to make children more likely to act more aggressively toward others throughout their lives.
5) Should I wash my child’s mouth out with soap?
No. See #3 above. Also, there is usually a long enough delay between biting and you actually getting the soap in the child’s mouth that they no longer understand the reason you’re doing it, thus making the punishment even more ineffective.
6) Is it okay to comfort my child after he or she has bitten someone else?
Yes, if needed! Even very young children know when they’ve hurt someone else, and they can feel empathy. Research shows that in infancy, when one baby cries, another baby close by is also more likely to cry. Babies also react when they see someone else crying or otherwise upset, even when they can’t hear a crying noise, which suggests they are having an empathic response, and not just reacting to the unpleasant noise of another crying child. As toddlers, children frequently comfort other children who are upset. Children are extraordinarily capable of empathy, and so most children actually show signs of guilt and empathy when they bite another child and hurt them.
It’s perfectly okay, then, to comfort the biting child, just as you also comfort the bitten child. Just make sure that as you’re doing this, you are also teaching proper alternatives to biting. This way, you aren’t rewarding the biting, but you are just responding to your child’s emotions while also rewarding alternative behaviors.