A guide to biting

Updated: Jan 17

Toddlers do so many adorable things: give you unexpected hugs, squeal with laughter and cuddle up when tired.

But as any parent can tell you, they also do some not-so-adorable things, they kick, scream…and bite.

Biting is quite common in children aged 12-36 months (after age 2 biting can become deliberate) but can still be addressed early on to curb the behaviour.

Why toddlers bite

Babies and toddlers bite for a variety of reasons such as teething or exploring a new toy with their mouth.

As they begin to understand cause and effect, they might also bite a person to see if they can get a reaction.

Hence, biting can be a way to get attention or express feelings such as anger or other strong emotions toddlers lack the language skills to express.

However, as language skills improve, biting tends to lessen.

How can we help prevent biting?

- Step 1: be calm and firm

Address your little one with a firm ‘no biting’ or ‘biting hurts’ and ‘thank you’ – keep it simple for them to understand.

Make clear that biting is wrong but avoid lengthy explanations until your child is old enough to understand. It is also important you remain calm throughout.

- Step 2: Comfort the victim

Direct your attention to the person who has been bitten. This will reinforce that it is not an effective way of getting attention.

- Step 3: Comfort the biter if need be.

If the biter is upset about biting another person, it’s ok to comfort them – this will help to teach them to comfort a friend after a bite.

However, as mentioned do not divert attention from the victim if the behaviour was for attention.

- Step 4: Offer alternatives

Suggest alternatives to biting to your little one – using words such as ‘no thank you, I don’t like’, ‘stop’ and ‘that, we don’t do that’ ‘ouch that hurts’ when wanting to communicate.

- Step 5: Redirect

Distraction works wonders with children at that age! If emotions and energy levels are running high or if boredom is setting in – help redirect your child’s attention to a positive activity.

This could include dancing, colouring or playing a game.

Discipline is usually not necessary – as most little ones don’t realise biting even hurts. NEVER discipline or bite a child who has bitten (or in any other instance!) – this reinforces that their behaviour is acceptable. You are also role modelling the behaviour yourself.

If you have tried the steps above and the behaviour hasn’t improved, ‘thinking time’ may be effective with older toddlers.

Create a ‘bite-free’ environment

Whether you feel like you’ve made progress with your little one’s behaviour or if it continues to be a work-in-progress, it is important to create a zero-tolerance culture everywhere they go.

Here are some tips for this:

- Be consistent

Keep reinforcements and reactions consistent in all biting instances, otherwise, this might confuse your little one.

- Use positive reinforcement

Rather than rewarding negative action with attention, make it a point to praise a child when they are well behaved.

Positive statements such as ‘I like how you use your words’ or ‘I like how you are playing gently’ to reinforce positive alternatives to biting.

- Plan ahead

Toddlers may be more comfortable and not feel the urge to bite if they know what to expect in new or high energy situations. Telling your child what to expect is a good way to prepare them for the future.

- Find alternatives

As their language skills develop, you can help your child find better ways to express negative emotions. For example, using their words over actions such as biting.

Biting is common in babies and toddlers, but it normally stops when children are around 3 / 4 years old at the latest (the average is 2).

If it does carry on into these ages, then you could always consider speaking to your child’s health professional to help understand underlying causes and ways to effectively help with the related behaviour.