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, when it comes to biting, there is hope. Child psychologist, Christine Kodman-Jones, PhD., says 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 object 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, according to Kodman-Jones. 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!”
Biting is slightly less common among girls, but Kodman-Jones warns that’s not just because boys will be boys. Expressive speech typically develops more quickly in girls, so they are often better able to express themselves early on. Still, excessive biting in girls or boys is not normal. Frequent biting or other aggressive behaviors could signal an underlying condition, such as an expressive speech delay, sensory integration dysfunction (SID), or autism.
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 Integration Dysfunction. Similarly, toddlers with sensory integration dysfunction (SID), not to be confused with SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome, often bite to convey their distress in certain environments. SID 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, Kodman-Jones explains that 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. Other signs that a child is affected by SID include:
- Overreacting to certain environments, sounds, tastes, smells, or touches, including certain fabrics or labels
- Avoiding or craving forceful movement, such as bouncing or jumping
- Consistently “tuning out” or “acting up”
- Lacking focus or attention
- Demonstrating a very high or very low pain threshold
Many children affected by SID can overcome their sensory problems with specially designed coping strategies from trained health care professionals.
In more extreme cases, children affected by autism may also react to their surroundings in unusual ways, such as biting, notes Kodman-Jones. Autism, or autism spectrum disorders, 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.
What do you do if your toddler bites?
So, what should parents do when their toddler bites, and how do they know if the biting is a sign of a larger problem? Kodman-Jones outlines a detailed plan of action for parents to help them get to the bottom of the behavior. 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, Kodman-Jones says 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.
Although biting is common among toddlers ages 1–3 years, excessive biting is not normal. If a toddler’s biting habit becomes extreme or persists despite these interventions, Kodman-Jones advises parents to consult their child’s health care provider to rule out underlying health issues, such as expressive speech delay or sensory integration dysfunction. Often, parents can be referred to behavioral specialists who can identify key strategies to help children find better ways to manage their feelings and express themselves