Our toddler is biting other children. Help!


In the past few  months our usually easy going and delightful 20-month-old son Jared has started to bite!  We have no idea what to do—it’s not like him at all. He's bitten me several times completely out of the blue.  Even worse, he has started to bite other children. I'm getting all sorts of advice about how to stop him and what to do, but nothing seems to work, and some doesn’t right (like biting him back)..  Jared isn't a mean child and he doesn't seem to be trying to hurt anyone.  In fact, he sometimes cries when the child he has bitten cries.  What can we do?

Jared’s biting is not unusual for a toddler, but you are wise to do everything you can to stop him before he gets into the habit of biting more often. When a toddler bites, he usually is NOT motivated by aggressive feelings.  Although older child may bite as a way of expressing anger, in most cases, a one year old who bites has other motivations.

One year olds are still at the stage of exploring the world using their mouths in addition to their hands.  Watch a group of toddlers play, and you’ll see  toys, fingers, bottles, and every other object they touch winding up in their mouths.  Sometimes a one year old will bite a parent or another child simply to find out how what it feels or to see what happens after they bite.

A one year old might start out kissing and then suddenly chomp down.  Some children toddlers will only try this a few times, especially if a parent reacts quickly. Putting the child down and saying "No biting" firmly and sternly can be very effective, especially if you are able to react without screaming (hard to do, because bites hurt!)Any big, negative response can wind up reinforcing, rather than discouraging your child’s biting—because the response is so exciting.  

Many  toddlers have very strong oral instincts. These children may continue to bite, not out of aggressiveness but as a response to their overwhelming inner instincts.  It may take dozens of firm and consistent responses from parents before they realize that they are doing something wrong.  The key is staying calm, and being as boringly consistent as possible.

Although you might be tempted, it doesn’t help to react with slapping or biting your child to show him that he shouldn’t bite you.  In fact,  since toddlers love to imitate what their parents do, hitting or biting might increase as a result. 

Preventing bites is a much better strategy than simply responding.  To do that, you have to begin by noticing when a bite is likely to occur and making sure that you stay tuned in.

For example, one year olds bite when they are bored.  Toddlers aren't very good at planning their own activities, so if a one year old has finished playing with a toy and doesn't know what to do next, he may bite another child just to stimulate some action.  The biting behavior forces adults to pay attention to children, so it is not uncommon for biting to occur in a playgroup or childcare situation when the adults are not interacting with the children. Even though other toddlers in the group may be misbehaving as well, the biting behavior will get the most attention.

Some one year olds bite when they are crowded by other children.  If they are playing and another toddler gets too close to them, they may bite as a way of telling the other child to back off.  This strategy usually works for the moment, so the child does it again, not realizing that he hasn't chosen a positive way of assuring his personal space.  In fact, he hasn’t made a choice at all—he’s just doing what comes naturally and works.

A one year old may bite if he is feeling overpowered by other children.  If some children in the group are bigger, or if the child is being pushed around by an older sibling at home,  he may bite as a way of showing his own power.  The bite is not necessarily an expression of anger, but rather a way for a very young child to say, "I count for something here, too."  So make sure that your child is not feeling intimidated by others before you assume he’s the one starting the problem.

A toddler who is inclined to bite may bite even more often when he is feeling tense, tired, hungry, or experiencing stress from a change in his daily routine.  The birth of a sibling, a substitute teacher, a new child in his play group, or the pain from an ear infection or teething can cause a child to start biting others. These are situations where careful supervision is key. 

It is sometimes helpful to offer a very oral toddler teething toys.  "If you need to bite, bite this."  A child  may even need to keep a teether in his pocket and be reminded to use it when you see warning signals.  If a child who sometimes bites is kissing you, say calmly, "No teeth" to remind him.  One nursery school teacher followed a toddler with a biting tendency around for three days, handing him a rubber doll every time she sensed he was going to bite.  After that time, he was able to redirect his desire to bite to the doll rather than to another child.

To help Jared now, begin by observing closely and noticing when, where, and how the biting occurs.  It's especially important to notice what is happening before a biting incident.  You can almost always find a pattern to biting behavior if you look carefully.  Once you see a pattern, you can focus on preventing biting as well as reacting to it.

In order to monitor and prevent biting behavior in a group, adults MUST stay very close to the child.  Although this kind of supervision may seem like a lot of work, preventing biting will help your child to get through this problem without it escalating into a situation where victims are crying, parents are angry, and your child is being blamed for behavior that he cannot control without adult assistance. However, it may not be possible in a group care situation to have one teacher available to shadow Jared.  Sometimes an extra staff member can help out, or parents can lend assistance until the difficulties have passed.

If Jared bites another child despite your attempts at prevention, try to have a consistent, calm response from all of the adults involved.  Of course someone must comfort the victim, who will probably be in tears.  But at the same time, be aware that the biting toddler also may be upset by his victim's reaction to his bite.  

There are two different approaches of handling the child who has just bitten.  The first approach, a good one when biting is a new behavior, is to involve the "biter" in comforting the "bitee", soothing her and helping to apply ice to her wound.  In this way, you are teaching and modelling empathy, not just for the children who are involved in the biting incident but for any other children in the group who are watching all of the action and learning from it.  For some toddlers, this response is very effective.  However, some toddlers will not be able to help you with the victim, and efforts to engage them will cause them to become resistant and defiant. So don’t push this technique if it doesn’t work after a few tries.

The toddler who resists paying attention to the victim is probably just caught up in his own confused feelings and needs. He is not a bad or insensitive child.  An upset or angry one year old is usually helped by being separated from the group, preferably with an adult who can help him calm down.  Once the child is calm, the adult can explain to him, "No biting.  Biting hurts."  

If prevention and quick, calm responses do not work to eliminate biting behavior, or if the child who is biting also seems to be angry or unhappy, it's a good idea to look at other issues.  Biting  is part of the normal behavior of one year olds, but if the behavior seems to be unchanged or getting worse, a child may be experiencing some other stress that needs his parents' attention.