Ouch! The Truth About Toddler Biting

Ouch! The Truth About Toddler Biting

By Michelle Mady

I am sitting at my desk, finishing up some work one day when my 16-month-old son’s teacher calls me. I immediately think he must be hurt or ill and start that typical mommy panic. Then she says, “Darius bit another child today. The other child is fine, we just wanted to let you know.  There will be an incident report for you to sign at pickup today.” 

Although my initial panic subsided, now fear and embarrassment set in. My baby bites? There must be something wrong with him; why would he bite?

Although not reassuring, I found that so many other mothers had been through the same thing. Toddlers do bite! But, no matter how many times I heard that this is something that many toddlers go through, I couldn’t shake the guilt. For some reason, hitting, throwing, and pushing felt like more “acceptable” toddler behavior. Biting crossed some line for me, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.

But, no matter how many times I heard that this is something that many toddlers go through, I couldn’t shake the guilt.

It is now 15 years after that phone call, and I have been teaching toddlers and young preschoolers for much of that time. I have experienced the pain of a toddler bite as well as the frustration of the toddler who bit. In my experience, although toddlers bite for countless reasons, there are some ways to navigate the biting phase and manage the new behavior.

Tip 1: Make a note of prior activity.  

Toddlers bite for many reasons, but there is typically a pattern. Take note of whatever is going on before the biting takes place. Is it a calm playtime? Is it almost lunch? If your toddler is a habitual biter, jot down notes about the times and surrounding events of the biting incident.  

Once you find a pattern, even a loose reason for biting, you can get proactive. Push lunch up a little bit; have duplicates of favorite toys to share with a sibling; play music and have a high-energy dance party to get the wiggles out before a typical biting time.

Tip 2: Swap biting with language.

Toddlers cannot communicate through language. They typically communicate through behaviors. Teach one or two words, with a bit of sign language, to empower your toddler to use words rather than teeth. Not only will this help your toddler communicate, but it will also alert you that intervention is needed quickly, because a bite is in the near future. Teaching the word “space” with hands palm flat out is a great example. It is one simple word taught over time in a loud voice. This alerts others around your toddler that they need some room. It also is your signal to support your toddler in the interaction.

Tip 3: Find the “yes.”

Like many behaviors, allowing an appropriate outlet for the behavior can diminish that behavior. 

For example, if your toddler bites you when hugging you, let them know that is not okay. “Ouch, that hurts.” Put the toddler down and give them a teether to chew on! “Biting Mommy hurts. You can bite this.” Leave the teether out for the child to get when they feel like they need to bite.  You can also experiment with chewy or crunchy foods to simulate the sensory experience of biting. 

In most cases, biting subsides as language and physical abilities increase. In toddlers, behavior and communication go hand-in-hand. They are expressing a need that they just can’t verbalize yet. So, support them by giving them opportunities to express those needs to you. They may learn a word, an appropriate way to acknowledge a need, or add opportunities in their schedule to fill that need. Having a child who bites can be really difficult to accept. However, by looking at it as your child expressing a need, we can communicate more fully and minimize the need to bite.

About the author: Michelle is a mom of 5 children ranging in age from 5 to 15.  As a toddler and preschool teacher, she shares experiences, activities and guidance to other parents, as both a parent and as a professional early childhood educator, at any stage of their parenting journey.

Photo by iStock.com/praetorianphoto


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