When a Toddler Bites

*Reprinted from the Contra Costa Child Care Council

Understanding Why and What To Do

Biting is a temporary behavior that is expressed when the child is in a social situation too difficult for him/her to handle. When a toddler bites, or has been bitten by another child, there is a high emotional response. The feelings of anger, frustration and guilt are overwhelming. Biting by a child of any age cannot be tolerated. It is not safe, socially acceptable or conducive to a positive setting for children. Most of all, it hurts!

Why Do Toddlers Bite?

Most biting occurs in toddlers who have limited language skills and are unable to express their frustration effectively. Children under 2 1/2 years bite for a variety of reasons:

  • Teething. Gums are sore and swollen, and biting can feel good to the child. Offer the child a soft toy, teething ring, or frozen juice bar as an alternative to biting.
  • Playing. Sometimes biting is a play behavior.
  • Feeling defensive. A child grabs for another's toy. That child bites because he does not have the verbal skills to say no.
  • Feeling territorial. The child is protecting Ms play space.
  • Trying to establish social contact.
  • Acting out aggression. One child bites another because he wants his toy.
  • Feeling stressed. Occasionally a child responds to stress by biting. Causes of stress may be a move, divorce or a new sibling.
  • Feeling frustrated. Preschool-age children bite less frequently than toddlers. A preschooler usually bites from total frustration at a situation and lack of skill in verbal expression.

Action To Be Taken

When a toddler bites, it is important to react in a calm, but firm, manner.

  • Attend to both the biter and victim. If possible, keep both by your side as you inspect and wash the bitten area with warm, soapy water. By doing this, you are showing the biter the consequences of his/her actions. This will help illustrate the seriousness of biting.
  • Encourage, but do not force the child to comfort the victim with words, hugs, or pats. This will teach him that gentleness and kindness are expected.
  • After the bitten child is comforted, tell the biter that biting is not acceptable, it hurts, and to be gentle.

Ways to Discourage Biting

Introduce alternative behavior in a calm, supportive manner, and you will be giving the child who bites the coping skills s/he needs.

  • Help the child to verbalize his feelings by giving him words to use, such as, "Can I have that when you're done," or "It is my turn now."
  • Teach the child words to make him feel in control, mine, no, and that hurts.
  • Talk to the child about rules for sharing. Constantly praise cooperative behavior.
  • Increase supervision so that you can prevent frustration that leads to biting.
  • Make certain there are an adequate number of toys and ample space for the number of children.
  • Avoid over-stimulation for a child who becomes easily frustrated when tired. This may mean playing with fewer children; shorter play periods, or less challenging play situations.
  • Never bite a child to show that it hurts or encourage the victim to. bite back. This gives children the message that violence is accept­able.

Contra Costa Child Care Council

  • East Area (925) 778-KIDS
  • West Area (510) 758-KIDY
  • Central Area (925) 676-KIDS
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