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?
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 ages 1 and 3 go through a biting phase, which they eventually outgrow.
Still, biting is something you want to discourage. Fortunately, there are ways to dissuade your little chomper from sinking their teeth into everything that walks and talks.
Why Children Bite
Kids bite for a number of reasons -- and most of them aren't intentionally malicious.
- They're in pain. When babies bite, typically it's because they're teething. They're 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 they are unhappy, or let another child know that they want to be left alone.
How to Stop Biting
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 they 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 your child if they get 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 they don'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 welcoming a 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 calm down.
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 they 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 health care provider, or enlist the help of a child psychologist or therapist.
Biting Injury Rx
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 child's doctor. The bite may need medical treatment, which could include antibiotics or a tetanus shot, or both.