is quite common among young children. It happens for different reasons
with different children and under different circumstances. The first step
in learning to control it is to look at why it may be happening.
Why Children Bite
EXPLORATION - Infants and toddlers
learn by touching, smelling, hearing, and tasting. If you give an infant a
toy, one of the first places it goes to is the mouth. Tasting or
"mouthing" things is something that all children do. Children
this age do not always understand the difference between gnawing on a toy
and biting someone.
TEETHING - Children begin teething around the ages of 4 to 7
months. Swelling gums can be tender and can cause a great deal of
discomfort. Infants sometimes find relief from this discomfort by chewing
on something. Sometimes the object they chomp on is a real person!
Children this age do not truly understand the difference between chewing
on a person or a toy.
CAUSE AND EFFECT - Around the age of 12 months, infants become
interested in finding out what happens when they do something. When they
bang a spoon on the table, they discover that it makes a loud sound. When
they drop a toy from their crib, they discover that it falls. They may
also discover that when they bite someone, they get a loud scream of
ATTENTION - Older toddlers may sometimes bite to get attention.
When children are in situations where they are not receiving enough
positive attention and daily interaction, they often find a way to make
others sit up and take notice. Being ignored is not fun. Biting is a quick
to become the center of attention - even if it is negative attention.
IMITATION - Older toddlers love to imitate others. Watching others
and trying to do what they do is a great way to learn things. Sometimes
children see others bite and decide to try it out themselves. When an
adult bites a child back in punishment, it generally does not stop the
biting but teaches the child that biting is okay.
INDEPENDENCE - Toddlers are trying so hard to be independent.
"Mine" and "Me do it" are favorite words. Learning to
do things independently, making choices, and needing control over a
situation are part of growing up. Biting is a powerful way to control
others. If you want a toy or want a playmate to leave you alone or move
out of your way, it is a quick way to get what you want.
FRUSTRATION - Young children experience a lot of frustration.
Growing up is a real struggle. Drinking from a cup is great; yet nursing
or sucking from a bottle is also wonderful. Sometimes it would be nice to
remain a baby. Toddlers don't have good control over their bodies yet. A
loving pat sometimes turns into a push. Toddlers cannot talk well. They
have trouble asking for things or requesting help. They haven't learned
yet how to play with others. At times, when they can't find words to
express their feelings, they resort to hitting, pushing, or biting.
STRESS - A child's world can be stressful, too. A lack of daily
routine, interesting things to do, or adult interaction are stressful
situations for children. Children also experience stressful events like
death, divorce, or a move to a new home. Biting is one way to express
feelings and relieve tension.
What Caregivers Can Do
- USE THE WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, AND
HOW METHOD TO PINPOINT THE PROBLEM. When did the biting occur? Who
was involved? Where did it happen? What happened before or after? How
was the situation handled?
- TRY PREVENTION. If you determine
that the biting occurs as the result of exploration or teething, you
may want to provide the child with a cloth or teething ring to gnaw
If a child seems to bite when tired or hungry, you may want to look at
your daily routine to be sure that he is getting enough sleep and
If the biting occurs when two children are fighting over a toy
telephone, you may want to purchase an extra toy telephone. It does
not work to make very young children share. Toddlers don't have the
skills to negotiate or understand another child's perspective.
If attention seems to be the main reason for biting, try to spend time
with the child when she is doing more positive things. Snuggling up
and reading a book together or rolling a ball back and forth is so
much more fun than receiving a scolding.
If the child is experiencing a stressful family or caregiving
situation, you will want to make everyday life as supportive and
normal as possible. Predictable meals and bedtimes and extra time with
a loving adult can help. Often, experiences like rolling, squishing,
and pounding play dough or relaxing and splashing in the bathtub are
great ways to relieve tension. In painful situations like divorce, it
takes time and patience for healing to occur.
- TEACH NEW BEHAVIORS. When a child
bites, show the biter with your voice and facial expression that
biting is unacceptable. Speak firmly and look directly into the
child's eyes. For example you might say, "No! Sara, it's not okay
to bite. It hurts Jon when you bite him. He's crying. I won't let you
bite Jon or another child." If the child is able to talk, you
might also say, "You can tell Jon with your words that you need
him to move instead of biting him. Say 'Move, Jon!'"
You may also want the child to help wash, bandage, and comfort the
victim. Making her a part of the comforting process is a good way to
teach nurturing behavior.
Whenever the child is out of control, you
will need to restrain or isolate her until she calms down. Insist on a
"time out" or "cooling off period." Wait a few minutes
until things are under control, and then talk to the child about her
A Final Note
Biting can be an uncomfortable issue for
parents. Parents of a child who is bitten are often outraged and angry.
Parents of the biter may feel embarrassed and frustrated. Sharing
information about the causes of biting and your plans for controlling the
situation can help parents to put things into perspective.
Reprinted with permission from the National
Network for Child Care - NNCC. Oesterreich, L. (1995). Guidance and
discipline. In L. Oesterreich, B. Holt, & S. Karas, Iowa family
child care handbook [Pm 1541] (pp. 239-242). Ames, IA: Iowa State