From the day we are born, we use all of our sensory organs to take in information from the outside world and put it together to form ideas about how the world works. Babies watch, listen, smell, touch, and taste – sometimes what we want them to, and sometimes what we don’t! As they grow, children learn society’s rules about what behavior is appropriate, but sometimes it can take quite a bit of practice when it comes to understanding how to communicate their feelings and desires.
One of the areas in which many children have difficulty at some point is biting. The mouth is incredibly sensitive, so very young children tend to use their mouth to investigate the surface or shape of an object. Repeated sucking or biting motions can also be calming for children. In addition, young children may resort to biting as a way of communicating a need or emotion that they have not yet acquired the language to express, similar to the reasons underlying hitting or throwing a tantrum.
Because they become accustomed to using their mouths to explore the world around them, to communicate their desires without language, and to calm themselves down, children must be specifically taught that biting others to serve these needs is not okay and that they need to express themselves in other ways.
Almost all children bite at one time, but most children will stop after being instructed to do so (though you may have to repeat the lesson a few times). By the time a child has turned three, biting should be rare. If children are still biting long after they have turned three, addressing the behavior and the underlying issues for it should be a main priority.
- When you see your child bite someone, use a calm voice to remind him that biting is not allowed. You do not want your child to learn that biting is a good way to get your attention. Use a brief phrase that acknowledges her feelings, but condones the action, such as, “I know you’re angry, but biting is not okay. Biting hurts.”
- Remove your child from the situation. Tell her that you are doing so because you know that she needs to calm down and does not want to hurt anyone. Let her see you focus on the victim of the bite so that she learns that it is the receiver who gets the attention, and not the biter. If the child who has done the biting is calm, consider letting her help comfort or bandage the victim.
- After the incident is over, ask your child what he wanted and what he could have done to get what he wanted instead of biting. Give him time to come up with ideas, but make suggestions if he cannot come up with any.
- Teach empathy for others by asking your child to imagine what it felt like to be bitten. However, take care not to punish biting with a physical response, such as spanking or by telling the child who was bitten to bite back; by doing so, you will be contradicting your message that it is unacceptable to express anger or frustration by physically hurting others.
- Give your child short phrases to repeat to himself when he wants to bite others, such as, “Biting is for only for food.” In addition, teach your child easy phrases to express himself as an alternative to biting, such as, “I’m mad”
- Give your child lots of attention for using alternate ways to express herself, especially in situations similar to when she bit in the past, but do not refer to the biting. Be specific, such as saying, “I noticed that you got upset when your brother wouldn’t share his blocks with you, but you made a great decision to do your puzzle until he is done.”
- Be on the lookout for times when you can teach your child about biting in a natural setting. For example, if you see animals biting each other, talk about how they bite because they are not able to speak, and ask your child to imagine what they would say if they could talk. Ask your librarian for books about biting and read them together; you can also seek out books that deal with characters that solve their problems in ways that do not involve physical means.
- Write down the situations in which biting occurs, noting things such as time of day, child’s mood, characteristics of the environment (e.g. Is it very loud? Crowded?), and what happened right before the biting. Do you see a pattern emerge? Does your child tend to bite only when she is tired or hungry? Preventing biting may be as simple as making a few changes until your child grows out of the need to bite to express herself. Try to anticipate situations in which your child might bite and break the pattern of biting before it becomes an automatic response by preventing frustration, hunger, or overstimulation before they occur.
- Sometimes children bite in order to exert control over their environment. Make sure to stick to routines so that your child feels a sense of predictability. Let him make choices about what he wants to do as much as possible.
- Look at your own behavior to see if you are accidentally sending messages that biting is okay. If your child is going through a period of biting, try to refrain from pretending to bite them in play (e.g., saying “You’re so cute, I just want to eat you up!”) or giving little love bites. Small children cannot make the distinction between what is playful and what might hurt others; they also may not be able to control their jaws to the same degree that adults can. In general, be a good role model for your child by trying to stay calm when confronted with frustrating situations, rather than handling them aggressively and/or with a physical response.
If your child continues biting despite using some of the above ideas (and particularly if your child continues to bite while the majority of other children his age have outgrown biting), consult your pediatrician, as there may be physical or developmental difficulties that need to be addressed.