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Toddler biting the side of a crib

Toddlers Bite!

I was teaching one of CHKD’s parenting workshops this week and the topic of biting came up. Several parents of toddlers were quick to jump in and commiserate with each other. The situations were varied but the main concern was, “Where is this coming from, and more importantly, how can I get it to stop?”

Toddlers sometimes bite when nursing or snuggling to explore cause and effect and the oral experience. When this happens, our natural response to startle, jump, or pull away is enough to cue our toddler that being bitten is not a game we like. Even if your toddler doesn’t understand language yet, they do understand a firm tone. You can firmly say, “Ouch, that hurt. No biting.”

Toddlers are still learning words and often use gestures and behaviors like biting to communicate. To help your child learn other ways to communicate their needs, it is important to understand the message behind the biting. Is your child letting you know they’re frustrated, in need of connection, over-stimulated, bored, or defending themselves Have they built up tension from a tough day of toddlerhood and want you to know they need some stress relief?

With some insight, you can create a plan to support your child and stop the biting.

Prevent the biting by recognizing the signs that your child is gearing up. For example, if your child is getting cranky or showing signs of frustration, intervene with physical connection. Give the child a big hug or play a game of tickle to help them release tension with laughter.

- Respond consistently when your child bites. Say, “Ouch, biting hurts. No biting.” Tend to your own wound for a moment with tenderness before directing your attention to your child. Let your child know that if they want your attention, they can say your name. Or, if they’re trying to communicate that they’re angry, they can say, “I’m mad.” Have your child practice the words you’d like them to use.

- Provide a stimulating and engaging environment by spending time with your child. Put the phone down, turn off the television, and give them undivided attention. You will see the desire or need to bite decrease. Research shows that five minutes of undivided attention decreases misbehavior by 50 percent.

- Respond to the bitten child first. If your child bites another child, help the child who has been bitten calm down and have them say, “I don’t like it when you bite me.” Your child will begin to develop empathy and a basic understanding that biting is not a good strategy for making friends.

- Deal with the message behind the behavior. Was the other child too close, or did they take a toy? Coach your child regarding what to do. Explain that if someone is too close, they can move away, or if someone takes their toy, they can let the other child know they are still playing with it.

- Provide positive ways for your child to release tension. It’s tough being a toddler. Recognize that they need to run and play and move their body in all directions every day. Sometimes a child releases tension by crying. When we give our child permission to feel their feelings, they can learn to do that without hurting others.

- Be patient. Toddlers often outgrow the biting stage when they develop expressive language. 

For more information on biting, visit our CHKD Health Library.

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About Michele Tryon, CCLS

About Michele  Tryon, CCLS Michele Tryon, CHKD community outreach coordinator and parent educator has worked with children and families for 30 years, providing services in the hospital, home, school and community setting. Michele is a Certified Child Life Specialist, a Certified Positive Discipline™ parent educator, a nationally recognized trainer/consultant for Nurturing Parenting Programs™ and co-author of The Nurturing Program for Parents and Their Children with Special Needs and Health Challenges©.