As toddlers learn to test their limits, they may act out in certain ways. It’s expected. After all, they don’t call them the terrible two’s for nothing. Occasionally, toddlers may have a tantrum, kick, or even bite. In fact, studies show that biting is common among young children. Nevertheless, parents of toddlers who have been labeled biters may suddenly feel very isolated. They may be shamed out of a playgroup or forced to remove their child from day care. Fortunately, there are several ways parents can get to the root of their toddler's biting habit and help put an end to this unwanted behavior.
Why do some toddlers bite?
Biting is a normal part of childhood and a way for young children to test limits or express their feelings. Many children show signs of this behavior as early as their first birthday and usually stop biting around 3 years of age.
Among the most common reasons why toddlers bite:
- Attention. If toddlers are not getting enough interaction, biting is a quick way to gain attention (even if it’s negative attention).
- Teething. Babies begin teething around 5 months of age. Biting on objects or even people can help ease the discomfort associated with tender, swollen gums.
- Exploration. Babies and toddlers learn through their senses, which is one reason why everything seems to end up in their mouths. This process of mouthing, however, is very different from deliberate biting.
- Imitation. Some toddlers who have seen another child bite may decide to try it themselves. Additionally, exposure to violence or harsh discipline may also cause a child to bite.
In most cases, toddlers bite because their language skills are still developing and it’s simply another way to express how they are feeling. Unable to quickly form the words they need to convey their thoughts, very young children may resort to biting as a way of saying, “Stop that!” or “I need some attention!”
What do you do if your toddler bites?
As soon as a bite occurs, parents or caregivers should take the following steps:
- Attend to the victim. Parents should first direct their attention to the person who has been bitten. Toddlers often bite to receive attention. By comforting the victim first, parents will be taking the first step in curbing the negative behavior. Parents or caregivers should also wash the affected area with soap and water.
- Be firm and calm. Parents should respond to the behavior with a firm, “No biting!” Keep it very simple and easy to understand. By staying as calm as possible, parents will be able to resolve the situation more quickly.
- Redirect. Bites often occur when emotions and energy levels are running high, or if boredom has set in. When this happens, parents should intervene and help toddles re-focus their attention on a positive activity.
Over time, parents can reinforce the no biting rule by following these steps:
- Check for patterns. The best way to get to the root of a biting habit is to look for patterns or clues as to how, when, and why a child bites. For example, toddlers who only bite at day care may be reacting to the discomfort they feel in a chaotic classroom. Once triggers are identified, parents can take steps to make their child more comfortable so they don’t feel the urge to bite.
- Use positive reinforcement. By praising children for good behavior, they may not feel the need to seek negative attention and bite.
- Look ahead. Anxiety can cause children to act out. As a result, toddlers may be less likely to bite if they know what their day will be like and what to expect in new or high-energy situations.
- Use sign language. As a child’s language skills develop, parents and caregivers can teach their children a few simple signs to help them communicate. Offering toddlers alternative ways to express themselves can help reduce their frustration and urge to bite.
Keep in mind it's common for toddlers ages 1–3 years old to bite or go through a biting phase. But if you notice excessive biting and other aggressive behaviors, these may be signs of a more serious developmental issue.
Frequent biting and aggressive behavior
If a toddler’s biting habit becomes extreme or persists despite interventions, parents should consult their child’s pediatrician to rule out underlying conditions such as an expressive speech delay, sensory processing disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.
- Expressive speech delay. About 10 percent of toddlers are affected by an expressive speech delay. In these cases, children are able to process information and understand language, but they haven’t expanded their own vocabulary as quickly as most other kids their age. For instance, by 3 years of age, toddlers typically expand their vocabulary from less than 10 words to about 400 words. They also begin forming complete sentences. Children who do not meet these milestones may become frustrated when they are not able to express themselves, and they may resort to biting as a means of communication. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, expressive speech delay can be overcome with early intervention by a speech therapist.
- Sensory processing disorder (SPD). Toddlers with SPD often bite to convey their distress in certain environments. SPD can affect a wide-range of age groups, from premature infants to teenagers. These children are either under or overly sensitive to what they see, hear, smell, or touch. For example, children with an auditory sensitivity may find a fireworks display or loud room very upsetting. As a result, they may bite to cope with their discomfort. Many children affected by SPD can overcome their sensory problems with specially designed coping strategies from trained health care professionals.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism is a general term for a range of conditions affecting social skills, communication, and behavior. In these cases, biting is not an isolated behavior, but a symptom of a larger problem. For instance, parents of autistic children usually notice a lack of skills or development delays between 15–18 months of age. The condition often makes it much more difficult for children to communicate without special help. (Learn more about early signs of autism here.)
If your child has an underlying condition or is just having trouble kicking the biting habit, your pediatrician may refer you to a behavioral specialist who can identify key strategies to help your child find better ways to express and manage his feelings.