You’re enjoying a sunny afternoon on the playground, when suddenly you spot your toddler with teeth embedded in a playmate’s arm. Horrified, you rush to discipline your pint-sized vampire — but what’s the best way to handle the situation?
Before you panic, know that biting is a normal part of childhood development. Young children bite for many different reasons, from teething to seeing what reaction it will provoke. Many children between the ages of 1 and 3 go through a biting phase, which they eventually outgrow.
Still, biting is something you want to discourage. Here are a few prevention tips to stop your little chomper from sinking his or her teeth into friends and family, as well as some ways to manage biting when it does happen.
Why Children Bite
Kids bite for a number of reasons — and most of them aren’t intentionally malicious. Here are possible explanations for why children bite:
They’re in pain. When babies bite, typically it’s because they’re teething. Their little gums and budding teeth aren’t discriminating — they’ll just as soon aim for your hand as a teething ring. Babies who bite while they’re teething are just doing it to relieve the pain of their swollen, tender gums.
They’re exploring their world. Very young children use their mouths to explore, just as they use their hands. Just about everything infants or toddlers pick up eventually winds up in their mouths. Kids this age aren’t yet able to prevent themselves from biting the object of their interest.
They’re looking for a reaction. Part of exploration is curiosity. Toddlers experiment to see what kind of reaction their actions will provoke. They’ll bite down on a friend or sibling to hear the surprised exclamation, not realizing how painful the experience is for that person.
They’re craving attention. In older kids, biting is just one of several bad behaviors used to get attention. When a child feels ignored, discipline is at least one way of getting noticed — even if the attention is negative rather than positive.
They’re frustrated. Biting, like hitting, is a way for some children to assert themselves when they’re still too young to express feelings effectively through words. To your child, biting is a way to get back a favorite toy, tell you that he or she is unhappy, or let another child know that he or she wants to be left alone.
How to Stop Biting
Rather than having to stop a biting incident, practice prevention so that your child will be less likely to bite in the first place.
- If your baby is teething, make sure to always have a cool teething ring or washcloth on hand so he or she will be less likely to sink teeth into someone’s arm.
- Avoid situations in which your child can get irritable enough to bite. Make sure that all of your child’s needs — including eating and nap time — are taken care of before you go out to play. Bring along a snack to soothe the savage beast if your child gets cranky from being hungry.
- As soon as your child is old enough, encourage the use of words (“I’m angry with you” or “That’s my toy”) instead of biting. Other ways to express frustration or anger include hugging a stuffed animal or punching a pillow. Sometimes shortening activities or giving your child a break can help prevent the rising frustration that can lead to biting and other bad behaviors.
- Give your child enough of your time throughout the day (for example, by reading or playing together), so he or she doesn’t bite just to get attention. Extra attention is especially important when your child is going through a major life change, such as a move or baby sibling. If your child is prone to biting, keep an eye on any playmates and step in when an altercation appears to be brewing.
Even with your best prevention efforts, biting incidents might still occur. When your child bites, firmly let your child know that this behavior is not acceptable by saying, “No. We don’t bite.” Explain that biting hurts the other person. Then remove your child from the situation and give the child time to cool off.
You might have heard from other parents that if your child bites you, bite your child back! This isn’t good advice. Children learn by imitation. If you bite your child, the child is going to get the impression that this behavior is acceptable and he or she will be more likely to do it again. The same goes for hitting a child for biting.
If you are unable to get your child to stop biting, the behavior could begin to have an impact on school and relationships. You or another adult might have to closely supervise interactions between your child and other kids. When biting becomes a habit, or continues past age 4 or 5, it might stem from a more serious emotional problem. Talk to your child’s pediatrician, or enlist the help of a child psychologist or therapist.
What to Do About a Biting Injury
The first thing to do for any biting injury is to wash the area with soap and water. Even little teeth can break the skin. If the bite is bleeding and the wound appears to be deep, call your pediatrician. The bite may need medical treatment, which could include antibiotics and/or a tetanus shot.