One of my earliest memories is of me biting another child.
I had to be just over three as I was in preschool. At the end of circle time, each day, each child collected their individual carpets off of the dark green linoleum, stacked them in a pile by the cloakroom and then, it was centre time!
I made a point of always sitting close to the pile of carpets so I could be the first to make it to the kitchen centre. If I got there soon enough, I was guaranteed to get one of the two highly coveted pieces of play-pizza.
On this particular day, my timing was off.
As I dashed to the wooden fridge, a curly-haired girl grabbed the first. A millisecond before my hand landed on the second, my friend Lindy’s did. I tried to pull it out of her hand. I’m guessing I also tried to negotiate. When all else failed, I bit my lifelong friend right on her arm.
My next memory is of me sitting at a long plaid coloured table pleading to rejoin my friends. I remember the teacher handing me a stack of wooden puzzles saying that I could not go back to the kitchen for the rest of the day.
All I remember after that is gasping for air between sobs.
I’m guessing this is the first and last time I ever got in trouble at preschool because the event is still vivid in my memory.
Regardless, the embarrassment sticks with me.
Embarrassment seems to be one of the most common sentiments that follow toddler biting.
Though my story is of my feelings about biting, parents also tend to feel a flood of embarrassment, shock, and consternation when their child bites. Despite how awful it seems to have your child bite you or another child, there is a lot that can be done to understand the source of toddler biting, reduce it, and, eventually, stop it altogether.
Why does my toddler bite?
Toddlers may bite because they:
- lack language skills – many young children’s thoughts are more complex than their expressive language. Because of this, they may bite because of the dissonance between racing thoughts and their inability to express them.
- have big feelings they don’t know how to express – Though this is similar to lacking language skills, it could be that even the most verbose little ones feel so overcome by emotion that they lash out and bite.
- are curious – some children simply don’t know what will happen when they bite. Then, when they get a reaction, they want to experiment and see if it will happen again.
- have a sensory need for the oral stimulation – meaning, they bite anything and everything because they need to chew.
- are teething.
- are exhausted or overstimulated and just can’t use executive functioning.
- have a need for more rough and tumble play.
Positive ways to stop toddler biting
Start by staying calm.
When I yell, chastise or get agitated, I put my children into a state of hyperarousal causing stress hormones to course through their veins. This makes listening and learning next-to-impossible (1). In the heat of the moment, parents should take a deep breath and be matter-of-fact. For example, in a neutral voice say, “We don’t bite.”
If another child was bitten, pay more attention to the child who was hurt than the child who did the hurting.
Sometimes children act out to get attention even if the attention is negative. As such, parents should withdraw positive reinforcement and focus on the child was hurt. (This, of course, is also smart because the child who was hurt should be attended to.) After you’re sure the other child is okay, focus on your toddler and what needs to be done to correct her behaviour.
Don’t punish biting.
For one, punishing escalates the situation. It takes a behaviour that appears to be aggressive and seeks retribution. On top of that, punishment fails to determine the root of the behaviour, address it and give alternative options to the biting behaviour.
Ask yourself, what happened leading up to the bite?
Was the child showing signs of exhaustion? Was he acting playfully and then bite? Or, did she desperately want a toy pizza that her friend had first? Answering questions like these will help determine the best way to stop the biting.
Redirect the behaviour.
Look for constructive ways for the child to meet his needs without biting.
For example, if you think your child is biting because she needs something to teethe on or needs oral stimulation, offer safe teething/ chew items.
Biting may be because the child needs more rough-and-tumble play. This creates a context for children to learn how to engage in physical play that doesn’t hurt. This is because wrestling with adults, the adult teaches children when to back off and what limits should be. Roughhousing is meant to be fun and therefore the children engaging in it are motivated to keep the fun going.
If he appears to lack the language to express his feelings, coach him on what to say. When my three-year-old is overwhelmed, I tell him to use his cupcake breath. This is where he pretends he’s holding a cupcake. Then he takes a deep breath blows an imaginary candle out. Then I’ll say something like, “Say to your brother, ‘I’m mad you kicked my blocks!'”
Other ways to redirect big feelings include saying:
- “We don’t bite. Say, ‘I need space.'”
- “You don’t bite. Tell Jackson, ‘Toy back, please.'”
- “Ouch! That hurt. Mouths are for chewing not biting. If you want mama, say, ‘Mama.”
Timeouts or time-ins can be a good way to work through the big feelings, reset, and then be ready to learn what to do.
Related reading: Time-ins vs. Timeouts: Find out what’s best for your family
If the toddler is biting to get a reaction, again, stay calm.
Stay calm, but be firm and honest. For instance, “Biting hurts. Ouch! Teeth are not for biting.”
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Read books and tell stories about biting.
Creating social stories can be a powerful way to teach a child not to bite. Basically, you construct a story (can be pictorial) depicting what happened leading up to the bite, how biting hurts, and how to act instead.
There are also several great books about toddler biting including:
Books about big feelings, not necessarily biting:
A final note
Suffice it to say, biting was a shortlived stage of my life. Based on my mom’s recount, I didn’t bite anyone at preschool after that particular incident. And thankfully, over thirty years later, Lindy and I are eh okay.
If you are trying to teach your toddler not to bite, remember that learning a new habit takes time. Be patient with them. Offer them an alternative to biting based on the why behind the biting. Lastly, help your child move on from the experience. Explain to them the consequences of their actions and help them find another outlet that doesn’t involve their teeth!
If biting endures outside of the toddler years, please consult a pediatrician or family doctor. It could be a sign that the child has developmental needs that may need additional help.