One of the more embarrassing, annoying and painful toddler behaviors is biting. One moment, junior is happily playing alongside a friend at daycare; a moment later, the little playmate lets out a howl of pain and your sunshine is accused of biting. Is your child bad? Is your parenting off? Actually, toddlers’ biting one another, mom and dad or the furniture is part of their coping mechanism. Even so, what’s the mom of a biting toddler to do?
Understand the ‘why.’ Babies bite to explore their world and separate edible from inedible. They also like to help their budding teeth to break through. Toddlers do not bite for the same reasons. Instead, they show their teeth when frustrated, in need of attention or just for a reaction.
Zone in on the ‘where.’ Does junior bite at the daycare but does not dream of baring his teeth at his sister when he is home? It is possible that the daycare setting presents stresses he does not know how to deal with. Without an acceptable outlet for strong emotions, biting becomes a natural reflex. On the flipside is the child who will bite at home to get some attention. Perhaps a dad or uncle at some point did some roughhousing and laughed when the teeth came out. Junior does not understand why mom does not break out in hilarity when he bites her ankle while she talks on the phone. Go figure. Dr. Steven Dowshen is adamant that mom (or dad!) should not laugh at biting during roughhousing.
Get him laughing! Did you know that laughing releases a lot of tension? Now it might be tempting to tickle your toddler until he rolls on the floor howling, but this is not the goal. Instead, the type of laughter that releases tension is the one that comes from a shared joke, a silly face or the ‘just because’ laughter young toddlers enjoy when mom does something especially out of the ordinary odd or goofy. A child with not a lot of tension is highly unlikely to bite at the first sign of frustration.
Avoid negative reinforcement. If you pay a lot of attention to your son when he bites, but not so much during other times of the day, you are setting up a pattern of biting for the sake of parental attention. Nip this behavior in the bud by dealing with biting in a quick and no-nonsense manner. A time-out (one minute for every year of life) should do the trick. Afterwards, say ‘no biting’ and go back to doing whatever it is that you were busy with. Then, after 15 minutes or so, set aside some time to spend with the child. He will not associate biting with attention even though you know that he originally tried to get your attention in this way.
Lavish attention on a bitten child. Another course of action to take is to briefly send the biting toddler to a time-out chair while then lavishing attention on the bitten child. Wash the bite area, apply a cold-pack, offer a snack or a special toy; the biter realizes that an attention-getting bite backfires because it is the other child – not he – who is getting the coveted parental or adult attention.
Head off biting by offering words. A child who bites — because he feels powerless to express himself — needs words. Teach the child words such as “angry,” “frustrated,” “scared” and “bored.” These expressions help the child to let those around him know what he is feeling, which in turn allows caregivers and other children to communicate verbally.
There is an odd bit of parenting lore that counsels to bite back when a toddler bites. The National Association for the Education of Young Children debunks this bit of advice as a harmful myth. Not only could you injure the child, but you are actually teaching that biting is acceptable behavior!
Steven Dowshen, MD: “How Can We Discourage Our Toddler from Biting?”
National Association for the Education of Young Children: “Biting in the Toddler Years”
More by Sylvia Cochran:
What to Do If Your Child is a Late Talker
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3 Common Eye Problems in Full Term and Premature Infants and How to Treat Them