When toddlers bite, emotions run high—and not just in the one left with tears and teeth marks. What just happened?!!
Biting mortifies parents like few other toddler behaviors. After all, it strikes once we’re beyond the initial baby mouthing-and-teething phase. Aggressive snapping often seems to come out of the blue. And the other kid’s parents are none too happy, sometimes blaming us.
Unnerving, uncivilized, and unacceptable—but developmentally normal—biting starts around age 1 and peaks between 18 and 24 months. Friends, siblings, and grown-ups (even parents) can be targets.
WHY it happens
Toddlers have more to say than they can say. Toddlers understand a lot of words, but they’re just learning how to use words themselves. Coming up with the right ones can take more time than they have patience for. Biting becomes a handy way to “speak up.”
“They really don’t have the language to express what they want,” says Katie Ramirez, a registered nurse and parent coach in Nashville, Tennessee. The “want” could be a toy a friend is using, food, attention, or reassurance.
They also have trouble expressing feelings—anxiety, powerlessness, and fear, for example.
Although biters are often viewed as the aggressor, a fairly peaceful child could be trying to tell a more assertive playmate, “Hey, move back, you’re crowding me!” or “I don’t like what you’re doing!” It’s no coincidence that biting spikes when kids start coming into contact more with peers—who are all still learning play-nice basics like sharing and taking turns that benefit from good language skills.
Toddlers like to experiment with cause and effect. Just as they manipulate objects to learn, they manipulate the people around them. “When they do something, they learn they have the power to impact their environment,” Ramirez says. And when they bite, boy do they get impact!
Toddlers want to feel more independent. Toddlerhood is a developmental push-pull: dependent on you for almost everything but also craving more independence. Some young children use biting to assert themselves and to feel more autonomous. They think, “Hey, I have control over something,” Ramirez says.
For older toddlers, it’s more about power. When the habit persists into the 2s, a child has learned to use biting as a handy, effective comeback to being ignored or not getting a desired response. As with hitting, biting can be about gaining some power, to get what he or she wants.
“Typically, at this point, it’s more of a behavior problem,” Ramirez says.
Whatever the cause, avoid labeling any child as a biter, especially in earshot. Ramirez says that once the label is there, a child can think, Oh, I’m a biter, that’s just what I do. And it becomes all the harder to teach a different way to behave.
In the moment:
Keep your reaction stern but unemotional. Whether the biter is a young toddler or an older one, Ramirez suggests crouching down to your child’s level. Firmly lay it out: “No! No biting.” (With 1-year-olds it helps to repeat the same words each time.)
Even if you’re freaked, avoid seeming worked up—no big emotions, no harshness, no lectures or asking “Why did you do that?” All those things just prove that yep, biting gets you a ton of attention.
(Remember that even negative attention counts as attention to a toddler.)
Show that the bite hurt. If your child bit you, rub the area and say something like “Ouch! Biting hurt Mama!” If your child bit someone else, point it out (“Look, Sami is crying,”) and model a sympathetic reaction (“Oh, Sami, I know it hurts to be bitten. I’m so sorry it happened”). At this age, demonstrating that it hurt triggers empathy much better than asking, “How would you feel if someone bit you?”
Forget about biting back to “show what it feels like.” A kid doesn’t need to actually feel that a bite hurts to learn that it hurts. All biting back accomplishes is showing a child that bigger, stronger people can use their teeth to assert their power and that it’s acceptable behavior.Turn your attention to tending to the bite. Instead of correcting the biting behavior in the moment—itself more negative attention—attend to the person bitten.
While keeping most of your focus there, you could ask your child to help you gather some ice or a first-aid or “boo-boo” kit, which also encourages empathy.
Now try to figure out why your child bit. Was she thirsty, hungry, or overtired and maybe using biting to express it? Did she bite a friend or a bigger sibling because she was feeling frustrated with what or how they were playing? Was it after she was calling your name repeatedly while you were on the phone?
Help your child name the emotion: “You were mad that Jake took your toy.” “You’re upset that I didn’t answer you.”
If biting happens more than once, look for patterns. Is the room crowded or noisy? Are the playmates older or younger? Does it happen at a certain time of day? That can help you prevent more biting.
Skip punishment—but circle back to the subject. Giving your main attention to the person bitten (even if it’s you) is “punishment” enough. After the heat of the moment, the biter may continue to need to be hugged or held until calm enough to move on. (Exiling him from play or giving a time-out will only feel more upsetting, rather than helping reconnect in a more positive way.)
Later, explain about biting and what the child should do next time instead.
To prevent biting (or more biting):
Teach a better way to get your attention. Set up a signal your child can use to let you know when he needs something, like a tug on your pant leg. All kids can learn a more respectful way to interrupt. Smile and use a soft voice as you explain.
“You want to teach that this is something that makes you happy,” Ramirez says. You also want to teach that it’s effective—so make sure you follow through and give positive feedback for nicer attention-getting behavior. Verbally respond—even if it’s a quick “Yes, sweetie.” Simply letting her know you’ve heard her can help ward off more aggressive demands for your attention.
If you can’t stop yet—say you’re on the phone or washing dishes—use a very short phrase, like “hold on” or “just a minute,” and redirect your child’s attention.
Consider using sign language. Ramirez suggests teaching signs for simple words, such as please, milk, hungry, and thirsty—shortcuts for a young toddler to quickly convey wants and needs to you. Signing mama as a general call for your attention can also be helpful.
“It’s a great tool for kids who don’t have verbal language,” she says.
Keep an eye out for biting triggers you can preempt. You know your child best and can start to anticipate situations that can provoke frustration and possibly a bite. Stay close when friends are over to play. You can give them the language they need if play heats up (“Let’s give Alex a turn”) and praise good play behavior for positive reinforcement.
Finding a quiet place or going outside for a moment can also give an overtired or overstimulated child who just wants a break some much-needed rest, before she lashes out.
And when your child is trying to tell you something, be patient. It may take a little bit for him to get it out. “Don’t complete sentences for them,” Ramirez says. “Let them take that time to say what they want to say.”
Give more attention. This can be tough. Sometimes you can’t drop whatever you’re doing or pause life to give a younger child the attention they crave. But any effort to really connect and make a child feel important can pay off with better behavior.
“Even ten minutes of one-on-one time with a child can go a long way,” Ramirez says.
Consider a speech-language assessment. Many kids don’t talk until 2 or 3, and in just under half of these cases late talking might indicate a speech disorder or other issue. If your child still hasn’t spoken a first word by 18 months, or if you have other concerns, that warrants further checking.
Teeth are for smiling too!
Upsetting as this phase can be for everyone, toddlers don’t bite to upset us.
They bite because they’re struggling. They have something to tell us. When we reassure them, and show them that there are more socially acceptable ways to get their needs met, the biting phase will end. And then we can get back to thinking about teeth mostly as something to count, brush—and leave under the pillow for the tooth fairy in a few years.