Biting happens mostly commonly between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. Each child bites for a different reason; often it’s due to an inability to communicate what he or she feels or wants.
I was working at my son’s daycare the day he bit another child. When a child cried out in pain, I dashed to the other side of the playground to find two-year-old Robert looking pleased, wearing his “I’m guilty” face. The other child was screaming, one hand clamped to his cheek. Robert said, “I bite,” and my world fell apart. I was angry at my son, angry at the other teacher who had not been paying attention, and angry at myself for not preventing the bite. I was also scared that I might lose my job.
My son’s daycare was less than a year old and hadn’t experienced biting before. They did not have a policy for dealing with the situation. Shocked by the incident, they said biting was uncommon and unacceptable behavior. Ensuring that Robert did not bite again was my responsibility, they said, so I started my research right away, seeking out pediatricians, dentists, child development professors, and people who worked in the daycare field.
I found I wasn’t alone, it wasn’t my fault, and that there were specific things I could do to prevent it from happening again.
Before a Bite
Biting happens mostly commonly between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, according to William Sears, M.D., the renowned child development expert and author of numerous books on raising children. Each child bites for a different reason; often it’s due to an inability to communicate what he or she feels or wants.
One way to avoid that frustration is for parents to learn techniques for teaching kids to talk, says Lisa Shaughnessy, co-director of Adventures Preschool in Belmont.
“Read books about feelings, and sing feeling songs and finger-plays like ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It,’” she says. “We encourage our teachers to be dramatic. If they bump themselves, or they are frustrated, voice those feelings. Say, ‘Ouch, my elbow hurts.’ Or,
‘This puzzle is frustrating!’ It takes quite a few months between the ages of 2 and 3 for children to master their emerging language and identify and express their emotions.”
Shaughnessy also suggests watching the child for signs of frustration in order to offer safe substitutes to biting, such as teething rings.
In school or daycare situations, communication is particularly important. “Open communication with parents can help identify any changes in that child’s life,” Shaughnessy says. “Even minute transitions like the changing seasons can trigger biting behavior. If you can pinpoint transitions it can help to figure out why the child is biting.”
And singling out the offending child can make the situation worse. “Labeling a child a biter does more harm than good. You wouldn’t call a child who pinches a pincher. It perpetuates the situation,” Shaughnessy says.
She also notes how important it is to explain to the parents of a child who has been bitten that biting is normal behavior.
Not every bite is a form of aggression, according to Sears, who writes about biting on his Web site, www.askdrsears.com. From the beginning of their lives, babies use their mouths to explore the world. Sears points to eight types of childhood biting, and says some are experimental. Parents need to teach the experimental biter that teeth are for food only and that he can’t bite people or animals.
According to Sears, kids also may bite because:
• They are too young to know how to express feelings. Some children use biting as a primitive form of social interaction. They don’t yet know how to say, “Hi, can I play with you?” Instead they greet their friends with an enthusiastic chomp.
• They are intimidated, frustrated or scared. It helps to watch closely when a child is engaged in an activity. Often, a child will have a look or follow a particular pattern of behavior that foreshadows a bite. Sometimes, children who feel threatened will bite. During times of transition, kids bite to express their distrust of situations. Take steps to help scared children feel safe by sending them into new situations with something familiar like a blanket, pacifier or favorite toy.
• They are imitating a peer. Children learn by imitation. Daycare centers, large families and playgroups sometimes have a rash of imitative biting. Look for children’s books about biting to use as a teaching tool for groups of kids. Model loving behavior and, eventually, the outbreak will fade.
• They bite to feel powerful, to test cause and effect and to have control over their universe. They like the power they feel when they get a big reaction from others. Many of these children benefit from more choices during the course of a day. Giving them more control in other areas of life may mitigate biting behavior.
• They bite simply for attention. It is important not to reward the behavior with extra attention.
• They bite because they are teething. This is actually one of the most common causes of biting in very young children, particularly when teeth can erupt about every six months until the child is 3. Dr. Arthur Sun, a Lexington dentist, says parents can expect teeth to come in when a child is between 6 and 10 months, then again between 12 to 16 months, then again from 18 to 22 months.
In The Discipline Book (Little, Brown and Co., 1995), Sears writes, “The budding teether longs for something or someone to gnaw on. Offer something cool and hard. Gum-soothing favorites are a cool spoon, Popsicle, frozen bagel, teething ring, and a favorite Sears family teether – a chicken leg bone stripped of the tiny bone slivers. Try cold teething biscuits for another melt-in-the-mouth teether.”
Biting at Preschool or Daycare
Sending a child, who is prone to biting, to school or daycare brings more concerns. In daycare settings, a biting incident necessitates the filling out of more forms than any other act of aggression, even though most children under age 6 lack the strength in their jaws to break the skin.
When bites occur, parents may have to sign an injury report, an incident report and, usually, a behavioral form. The state Office of Child Care Services takes biting seriously, causing some schools to take a rigid approach to biting, including sending kids home or to the director’s office immediately.
When choosing a daycare, ask about its biting policy. If your child bites, you could be in for an expensive surprise, such as finding alternate daycare while he sits out a suspension. At my son’s daycare, when he did it twice more over a three-week period, we were immediately sent home.
In order to help develop a biting policy for the daycare, we called in professional help, including professor Amy Phillips-Losso, Ph.D., of Wheelock College’s Early Childhood Education program, to advise the staff. For me, the two weeks out of the school and without pay were tough.
Discouraging a Second Bite
Consistency is the key to managing biting in any setting. Shaughnessy says parents should take the following steps after a biting incident:
• Stay calm.
• In a firm tone, tell the biter, “We don’t bite our friends.”
• Then, turn your attention to the victim and offer comfort.
• Try to get the victim to express how he or she felt about the bite. Help the child to explain to the aggressor that, “I didn’t like that! It hurt. Don’t bite me!”
• Apply ice to the bite.
If the focus is not on the offender, he or she will learn that biting does not get a dynamic reaction or extra attention.
Parenting is all about teaching kids to be functioning members of society. Your young child will soon learn that kids are friends, not food. Be consistent, help children express needs and feelings, and provide chewy objects for children who need the oral stimulation. Tell them that object is theirs to bite if they feel the need to bite. And, when you look at that chewy object on a string and wince, remember: “This too shall pass.”
On the Web
• National Association for the Education of Young Children – Search by topic for information on various education and child development issues.
• Ask Dr. Sears – See Sears’ tips under “toddler behavior.”
Books for Parents
• The Happiest Toddler on the Block, by Harvey Karp, M.D., Bantam, 2004.
• The Discipline Book, by Martha Sears and William Sears, M.D., Little Brown, 1995.
• No Biting: Policy and Practice for Toddler Programs, by Gretchen Kinnell, Redleaf Press, 2002.
Books for Toddlers
• No Biting, by Karen Katz (Grossett and Dunlap, 2002).
• Teeth Are Not for Biting, by Elizabeth Verdick (Free Spirit Publishing, 2003).
Hadley Lewis is a mother and freelance writer from Watertown, MA.