Biting is a common behavior in toddlers. Despite this, the experience of being a parent of a toddler who has bitten another child can be embarrassing and stressful. Biting behavior tends to occur most frequently between the ages of 1 and 2 years old when toddlers have few other ways to communicate their needs or wants. Biting occurs much less frequently as toddlers discover other ways to communicate and it is rarely an issue in children beyond the age of 3.5 or 4.
If your toddler bites, it does not mean that they are a “bad” or “aggressive” kid. It also does not mean that you are a “bad” or “incompetent” parent. Toddlers are little scientists who are constantly trying new ways to influence their environment (i.e., you) and they depend on caregivers to teach them when a behavior is inappropriate.
The first step in managing biting is to consider why it is happening. Are they teething/bored/seeking oral stimulation? Do they not like something another child or caregiver has done (taken their toy, eaten their snack)? Do they want their caregiver’s attention? Here are specific recommendations related to each of these:
If your child is biting because they are putting EVERYTHING in their mouth, so why not a friend:
It is very common for toddlers to put objects in their mouths. If you think that your toddler is biting as a way to explore their environment or because they are teething, provide other safe things they can put in their mouth (teethers). A quick verbal redirection, “No biting,” and providing an appropriate object to put in their mouth should do it!
If your child is biting in order to communicate frustration/anger at an adult or other child:
The most important thing to do is to help the toddler understand that it is OK to be mad, but they will not get what they want by biting. Start by saying “No biting” or “I am not for biting” (for older toddlers). Then, try to determine what may have upset them. If they bit another child who took their toy, make sure they do not gain access to the toy after biting. If they bite you while changing their clothes, do not stop changing their clothes. In this scenario, it is easy to become frustrated with the toddler, but it is important to remain calm and establish clear limits. These little scientists will stop experimenting with biting if they realize it is not a successful way to get what they want.
If your child is biting to gain attention:
It can be more difficult to determine if this is the reason a toddler is biting. One sign may be if your toddler is biting you or another child when there was no clear trigger. A brief time out is the best way to respond in this scenario. However, time out will not work unless they have first been given a “time in.” For example, if the toddler is accustomed to competing for the attention of a busy adult, they may not notice when they are put in time out. Maximize the time you have with your toddler by putting away your phone and other devices, getting on their level, making eye contact, and showing genuine interest in them. Spending quality time with your child each day will make interventions like time out much more effective and may make them less necessary. A typical rule of thumb for time out is 1 minute for every year of age and it should occur in a setting where you can supervise.
Parents are strongly encouraged to avoid teaching their children not to bite by biting the child back. This is an incredibly confusing message to toddlers and may make them think that it is acceptable because you are doing it to them.
As with most developmental stages, this one will pass with time. Be kind and compassionate to yourself and your toddler and follow the steps above to navigate this stage as successfully as possible. If these strategies are not successful, talk to your pediatrician about this behavior for more specific recommendations.
— Chelsea Weyand, Psy. D., ABPP, Pediatric Psychologist, Akron Children’s Hospital