It is not uncommon for toddlers and young children to bite and there are many factors that contribute to it and mostly not malicious. However, a child’s biting habit presents several social and practical problems, including relationships with the child who gets bitten and being excluded from group activities. Breaking your child’s biting habit first comes from understanding why the child bites, followed by an appropriate approach to prevent future biting incidents. Let’s explore these causes and find ways to break your child’s biting habit.
Children around the age of 18 to 36 months may explore the world by putting things in their mouth, filling the texture and taste. Sometimes this ‘mouth exploration’ spills over to biting other children. Let your child know firmly that it is a ‘NO’ to bite another person and engage in activities with your child to explore using other senses such as touch and smell.
Biting may become a channel to vent frustration, particularly for children who are not able to communicate using words. Young children are less able to regulate their emotions and have more trouble exercising control. You can help your child by teaching simple words when you notice your child being frustrated or irritated and for older children, talk through their emotions with them. Also parents pick up signals when the child gets irritable, such as when the child is hungry or tired. Anticipate such situations and offer a cuddle or a snack before your child gets too irritable.
Some children may also bite other children after noticing that the first unintentional biting leads to attention from the adults, even if it’s scolding. Sometimes caregivers may nibble them for fun or laugh off a biting incident. This confuses the child who may think that biting is a way to get more interaction and attention. Always send a clear message that biting is not acceptable and never bite your child back to show him/her that it hurts. Every child (and even adults) need attention and give plenty to your child throughout the day.
The child may have observed a funny reaction from an adult after biting him/her and another different reaction from the next person he bites. Since both are different and not clear messages to stop biting, the child may bite another to test out the reaction. Parents can help by sending a clear message every time and requesting alternate caregivers to do the same.
Particular in group setting, aggressive behaviors and conflicts are more common. A child may learn from one isolated incident that biting keeps other children away and bite again if a large group setting feels overwhelming. Parents should find out from the preschool how they have handled an incident and work together with the teachers to prevent future incident. If the biting happen during a playdate, promptly distract the toddlers and remove them from the situation. Give the child time-out to calm down and talk through a more appropriate response.
This is a much more straightforward reason – during teething, the gums feel tender and biting relieves some of that discomfort. Get your child teething rings and you can give to your child as it is or chilled. Explain that teething rings are the right thing to bite for the tender gums and not anything else.
Biting is usually a development phase from 1 to 2 years old and when it crosses to over 3 years old, do seek help. Also if the biting is several times a week, it is definitely a cause for concern that may indicate tactile defensiveness where a child reacts negatively to touch.