How To Handle and Discourage Toddler Biting

Two toddler girls lie on grass laughing as they play with bubble machine.

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It's not uncommon for toddlers to bite, and most often it's just a way in which they express frustration that they aren't yet able to articulate in words. Yet, sometimes it becomes more of a problem. What can happen if biting is not addressed and what can you do to make it stop?

Let's take a look at biting in toddlers, some of the reasons why it occurs or persists, what measures you can take to reduce biting, and how to handle it when it happens.

Biting in Toddlers

Biting is common in toddlers and is, from a psychological perspective, considered "normal" in this age group. It's estimated that between one-third and one-half of all toddlers in daycare will be bitten at some time. Biting in toddlers can be the way that children display frustration or a need for attention before they have other ways to do so (such as talking.)

When toddlers bite, it is upsetting to all involved—parents, caregivers and the children. While biting is common in young children, most toddlers who bite will stop after being corrected a few times. There are, however, some toddlers who will continue to bite despite efforts to correct the behavior.

Some children learn to bite from watching others get their way by biting. Sometimes biting can be self-defense. Toddlers lack impulse control, and biting may be a response to overstimulation. Repeated biting for many toddlers may be an attention-seeking behavior as toddlers usually prefer negative attention over no attention at all.

Connection Between Toddlers Biting and Speech Delays

Toddlers with speech and language delays cannot express themselves to other children or adults. Many toddlers also have difficulty understanding what others say to them. This difficulty communicating frustrates speech delayed children and can cause them to bite others in response.

Speech and language delayed toddlers may use biting to control their interactions with others in their environment. For children with speech problems, biting can say, "Stop bothering me. I was playing with that."

Ways to Prevent Biting and Teach Replacement Behaviors:

When it comes to biting in toddlers, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth the proverbial pound of cure. There are a number of things you can do to reduce the chance that your toddler will bite. As you look through these prevention methods, please don't feel judged as a parent. Though there are a number of things you may do to reduce biting, some toddlers will still bite despite having the most loving and caring parents. In order to reduce or prevent biting, here are a few tips:

  • Refer toddlers who are behind in speech and language development for evaluation and testing for learning disabilities. Speech therapy can help with speech delays to reduce biting and other problem behaviors.
  • Closely supervise toddlers. Adults should circulate among children in daycare rather than watching from a distance. If you are in the midst of the toddlers' activities, you are also more likely to see behaviors and emotions that could result in biting.
  • Be alert to disagreements and intervene before biting occurs. Sometimes it may be a good idea to let children "work it out for themselves" but other times they need an adult to step in and intervene.
  • Model appropriate language for all toddlers in a classroom or in the home. This helps them learn appropriate ways to cope with frustrations. Modeling language can help the children develop the communication skills to play appropriately.
  • Be patient. Language skill development takes time. Toddlers may need several months of intervention and redirection to learn new speech skills and appropriate behaviors.
  • Move frustrated toddlers to another play area or help them choose a different toy or activity when disputes erupt. Use a time-out if needed.
  • Keep play areas orderly and stocked with adequate toys and supplies for all of the toddlers.
  • Ensure adequate space for play without crowding. Some toddlers need more personal space than others, and if this isn't honored, biting may occur.
  • All toddlers need schedule structure and routines to understand what is expected of them. Establish predictable routines.
  • Keep toddlers' energy and nutritional needs met. Provide appropriate nutrition, play time, and nap time.
  • Maintain a peaceful atmosphere in classrooms. Avoid over-stimulating toddlers with rough play.

What to Do When Toddlers Bite

Despite all your preventative efforts, toddlers may still bite. Here are some tips on what to do if a toddler bites:

  • In daycare, staff should be trained to watch for biting. They should also have training in first aid for biting. First aid for puncture wounds such as bites can be somewhat different than first aid for other types of injuries such as lacerations.
  • Contact the parents if the bite requires medical attention. Parents should always be informed if their child bites or has been bitten.
  • Allow the biting toddler to see that the child he injured is being helped. Giving more attention to the child who was bitten reinforces the fact that biting is not OK. If the biting child is willing and calm, this may be a teachable moment for talking about empathy.
  • Diffuse the situation by moving the children away from others until they have been calmed.
  • Respond quickly to the biting, as toddler's attention spans are short.
  • Never allow anyone to bite the toddler back to "teach him that it hurts."
  • Be prepared to explain to parents how you addressed the biting. Reassure them with steps you will take to prevent toddlers from biting in the future.
  • Try to understand the situation or frustration that provoked the bite and validate the child's emotions. For example, if another child stole the toddler's toy, allow the child to tell you he was angry. Then talk about better methods of coping with that anger if it should occur again. Biting can be an opportunity to teach your child about her feelings.
  • Remember to keep the focus on the behavior rather than the child. For example, saying that it not OK if you bite is better than saying you are not OK if you bite. Using OK or not OK is often better than saying something is good or bad as it is informative rather than punitive.
  • Whatever methods you use to deal with the biting, try to avoid shaming either child.

A Word From Verywell on Biting in Toddlers

If your toddler is biting, there is probably distress all the way around. This includes the child or adult who is bitten, your role as your child's parents or daycare provider, and the feelings of the toddler that resulted in biting in the first place.

If this is a "first-time" bite, it's important to look at the situation which resulted in the bite. Sometimes bullying occurs even in toddlers, and ignoring the bully and punishing the bullied child can result in further behavior problems down the line.

For a child who continues to bite, an evaluation of speech and language is important as there is an association between biting and speech delays. In this case, the biting may be the "red flag" that gets a child the help she needs in addressing the learning disorder.

Most important is that the involved adults should behave calmly and respectfully. Parents of the child who is bitten will likely be upset about their child's safety, but shouting accusations will not help. Likewise, the parents of the child who bites may be embarrassed or wish to shout accusations about what caused the biting in the first place, but this is not helpful. Daycare providers, from another angle, may be worried about the legal aspects of biting. Children model the behavior of adults in their midst, and toddlers need to see that a situation such as biting, no matter how emotional you may feel inside, can be handled thoughtfully and respectfully.

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