Biting is a normal phase of child development. Children may bite due to teething, as part of exploring, to get a reaction, to get attention, or being frustrated. For teething children, provide teething toys to reduce biting. For older children, there are strategies you can use to help your child learn better ways to react to situations. If a child 5 or older is still biting, you should get help from a pediatrician or child therapist.
Why Children Bite
Kids bite for a number of reasons -- and most of them aren't intentionally malicious.
- They're in pain. When babies bite, typically it's because they're teething. They're just doing it to relieve the pain of their swollen, tender gums.
- They're exploring their world. Very young children use their mouths to explore, just as they use their hands. Just about everything infants or toddlers pick up eventually winds up in their mouths. Kids this age aren't yet able to prevent themselves from biting the object of their interest.
- They're looking for a reaction. Part of exploration is curiosity. Toddlers experiment to see what kind of reaction their actions will provoke. They'll bite down on a friend or sibling to hear the surprised exclamation, not realizing how painful the experience is for that person.
- They're craving attention. In older kids, biting is just one of several bad behaviors used to get attention. When a child feels ignored, discipline is at least one way of getting noticed -- even if the attention is negative rather than positive.
- They're frustrated. Biting, like hitting, is a way for some children to assert themselves when they're still too young to express feelings effectively through words. To your child, biting is a way to get back a favorite toy, tell you that he or she is unhappy, or let another child know that he or she wants to be left alone.
How to stop it
In all instances, react swiftly, and keep your cool. Don’t ever – ever – bite back or hit – retaliation could be dangerous. “You’re just teaching them violence causes violence,” says Mallory Henson. But don’t dodge the issue – children need to know immediately that what they have done is wrong.
- Intervene: Open your eyes – look at how intense, how frequent bites are and what the triggers are. One of the best ways is to act before your child has a chance to sink their teeth into anyone. “Parents are slow to do this – but it’s one of the best ways,” says Lyn Fry. “Whisk your child away from the person they’re about to bite. Or don’t put them into large groups if that’s where it happens. Plan in advance for their behavior.” Children often clench their teeth before they bite – an unmistakable sign. Take the child somewhere quiet to calm down. If a teething child is trying out his or her teeth, find toys to chew and chomp on.
- Teach them it’s wrong: When your child bites, use simple but firm words. Try, “that’s biting, that’s wrong” or a firm “no”. If you’re in a group, remove them from the situation. Explain that it hurts others and why you don’t like them doing it.
- Teach them to express themselves: When things have calmed down, try to help your child find a less painful way to express their feelings. This works well with children who are biting to try to show their affection. “If your child’s expressing love, teach them to hug rather than bite whenever they feel strong emotions.” Likewise, if your child bites out of defense, show them how to tell somebody they don’t want him or her too close – to make the “stop” sign (a hand held up) – or even gently to push the other child’s shoulder – which won’t hurt but gives a clear message. Or teach them to come and find you instead if they’re angry.
- Reduce the effectiveness: When children bite to gain attention, dealing with it is trickier. After the first big talking to, don’t try to continue to reason or explain. Give a firm “no”. “Put your body between victim and biter and turn your back on the biter.
Give the victim sympathy and the biter a clear message this is an unproductive way of getting attention.
If time-out is one of your methods, now’s the time to use it. If the bite was over a toy or treat, remove it for a short while. If a child tries to control his or her mom by biting, try physically putting a part of their body in the way as they go to bite – an arm or a leg, which will stop them in their tracks.
- Praise them for good behavior: Catch your child behaving well – not biting siblings, playing well in groups, not biting to get his or her way – and be generous with praise. Be specific – “good boy” becomes like water off a duck’s back to them. Instead try: “how well you’re playing” or “aren’t you kind and gentle to your little brother?”.
When nothing works
“I can’t help feeling the people who give out advice haven’t actually struggled with a child who bites,” says one mom of a ‘serial’ biter. There are a number of reasons methods may not work – there may be something getting in the way of your child learning – perhaps anxiety. Some children learn at different speeds and won’t pick up on things straight away – you might just need to be more persistent.
- Stick with it: Keeping to a plan of action is more difficult than it seems. “You need attention, energy, consistency and support,” says family therapist David Spellman. “These methods aren’t rocket science, but need planning and determination.” Make sure all your family and preschool teachers are on the same page – young children find it hard when they receive mixed messages. Involve preschool teachers and parents in putting a plan together.
- Give clear commands and be positive: Young children can’t understand negatives, so avoid “don’ts”. Try “we keep our mouths to ourselves, or our teeth are for chewing our food” instead. Try not to raise your voice and speak in a firm voice. Don’t overdo explanations: The first bite may be impulsive, but a child soon learns they get an enormous amount of attention. “One of the biggest mistakes is to give the warning all over again. If they continue to bite, don’t go into why it’s wrong, just say ‘that’s biting, that’s wrong’.”
- When to ask for help: Don’t rush to a therapist; seek help or advice first from friends and other parents, or teachers and preschool and health visitors, who can also point you in the right direction if you want to take it further.