Beyond Biting: Gently Guiding and Supporting Toddlers
Lemberg Children’s Center
While biting is common and developmentally appropriate amongst toddlers, it is never easy for anyone when one child hurts another. Emotions tend to flare and, oftentimes, everyone involved feels lost as to what to do next. They are left with more questions than answers: Why did my child bite? Is my child ‘bad’? Is my child being targeted? Am I doing something wrong?
When infants and toddlers bite, there are many possible underlying causes that should be addressed in hopes of stopping the biting, including:
- Need for oral stimulation
- Not yet fully-developed communication skills and inability to access language
- Lack of impulse control
- Need for physical space in group settings
- Strong emotions like frustration, anger, and sadness
- Exploring cause and effect with actions
- Seeking connection with others
Caregivers who work closely with toddlers who are biting are usually able to identify which of these underlying causes is the source of the behavior and take steps to address the real issue. In these common situations, the children’s behaviors are never malicious and are usually expected for those who care for toddlers until they are able to learn more prosocial skills.
What To Do Right After a Biting Incident
When we witness a child being bitten, our initial reactions might be big, scaring ourselves and the children involved. It is important in these situations that the adults involved quickly stop the biting and then pause, take a second to gather themselves, and then gently respond to both children. This becomes easier with practice and when we keep in mind that biting is a typical behavior for many children this age. When we are calm and ready to gently respond to the children, we can follow this sort of script:
- Gently stop the undesired behavior (i.e., biting) by separating the children involved, focusing first on the child who was bitten.
- Comfort the child and attend to the bite wound however applicable (washing it, ice pack, bandage, etc.)
- Once the children are calm, neutrally narrate what happened and the emotions that have come up: “You really wanted a turn with the truck, Bobby, but it’s still Sally’s turn. It’s so hard to wait for a turn!”
- Model self-advocacy for the bitten child in front of the other child: “Sally, you don’t want Bobby to bite you. You can say “No!”, “Stop!”, or “Mine!” (Whatever language works for your child.) Practice calming activities together to recover from the bite (e.g., deep breaths, snuggles, listen to soft music).
- Come up with a simple plan and model repairing the relationship: “When Sally is all done, it will be your turn Bobby. I’ll sit and wait with you,” or “Let’s get another truck for you Bobby!” or “Bobby, maybe we can help Sally by putting stones in the bed of her truck. That sounds fun!”
- Point out and praise related positive behaviors: “Look at the way you both are playing together with the truck,” “Thank you for waiting for your turn, Bobby,” “Bobby, when you say ‘Turn’ Sally knows that you want the truck,” or “Sally, you are being a thoughtful friend by sharing your truck with Bobby when you are done with it.”
Shame, punishment, and biting a child back is not effective in the long term because these consequences send conflicting messages to the child who is biting and does not address the underlying problem. Typically, biting is a behavior that will extinguish on its own by 4 years old. If it doesn’t, speak with your child’s pediatrician to explore whether there is an underlying issue going unaddressed.
Taking Steps to Avoid Biting Scenarios
Thankfully, there are things we can do to set children up for success at home, school, and in public:
- Offer teethers or crunchy snacks for oral stimulation
- Look for patterns in biting scenarios (“Bobby has been biting around 12 PM every day. Perhaps he is overtired and needs to nap a bit earlier.”)
- Create calm environments for the children (cozy areas, soft stuff animals, warm lighting, minimal noise)
- Avoid big reactions to biting and other undesired behaviors so that the child does not learn to seek out these reactions from adults
How To Respond When Your Child Bites in Public
Many caregivers have shared anecdotes of the horror they have experienced when their child bites a child in public, usually on the playground. They share how they froze after the bite and then quickly scolded their child and forced them to apologize to the other child. Given what we know about child development, we know there are better ways of handling these situations, even if they are uncomfortable when you first try them out.
- Remain calm and stop the undesired behavior.
- Take a second to remember that your child is still your sweet little angel!
- Set clear expectations for your child: “You want space. You can say, ‘Space.’ Biting hurts, ouch.”
- Check in with the other child with your child when they are calm. Model this behavior instead of forcing an apology: “I’m sorry that Bobby bit you, ouch. Bobby wants to play by himself so we’re going to take space over here. We hope we can play together another time.”
- Move on. There is no need to continue discussing the situation afterwards because it can cause unnecessary feelings of shame.
- Find times soon after to remind and reinforce the expectations: “Remember, you can say ‘Space’ or ‘Mine!’,” or “Thank you for moving your body when you wanted space!”