Q: Our son just turned one, and, almost like flipping a switch, he went from the sweetest, happiest little guy to smacking and biting. It's bad enough when it happens at home, but my husband and I are beyond embarrassed when he attacks friends or strangers. Is it normal for babies to turn mean like this? And normal or not, how can we get it to stop?
A: No one knows exactly why, but right around their first birthday, most babies go through a stage that involves hitting and/or biting everything and everyone in sight. So, yes, biting and hitting are normal, and it's unlikely that he's "turning mean". However, as you said, whether it's normal or not, this behaviour needs to stop. Before you can do anything about the behavior, though, you need to figure out what's behind it.
According to child development experts, there are lots of possible explanations. Your baby may be hitting or biting because:
- He's teething. New teeth coming in is often painful, and babies figure out pretty quickly that biting helps relieve the pain.
- He's a scientist, doing experiments in cause and effect. He bites, you do X. He hits, you do Y. Plus hitting different things makes different sounds. How cool is that?
- He's overstimulated or tired and wants to be left alone. What better way to get that point across than nipping?
- He's defending his castle, or at least his toys.
- He's got a playmate or older sibling who bites or hits.
- He's telling you he loves you. After all, you probably gently nibble on him, so it's natural for him to want to reciprocate.
The good news is that this unpleasant phase often doesn't last for more than a few months. Of course, when you're being chomped or pounded on every day, those months will go by very slowly.
Although your baby's behaviour is normal, there are a few things you can to try to minimise the behaviour.
- Pay attention. Does your son bite or hit at certain times of the day? It could be his way of telling you he's tired and needs a nap. Or does he just do it in certain situations? He could be afraid of someone or something.
- Don't "fight fire with fire". Hitting or biting him back so he'll "know what it feels like" will backfire. Regardless of what you say, the message he'll get is that hitting and biting are really okay. You wouldn't do it if it weren't, right?
- React quickly. If he bites or hits someone, say "no!" firmly, then pick him up and take him away immediately. If he does it to you, put him down, walk to the other side of the room, and look away.
- Stay calm. If you scream or yell, your baby may want to do it again to get the same reaction.
- Show and tell. When he hits, take his hand and use it to "pet" you while telling him that we don't hit people, we touch them nicely. If you've got a dog or a cat, you may have already had this conversation.
- Be realistic. Demanding that your baby apologise to you is a complete waste of time at his age. His little brain hasn't developed to the point where he can understand that he's hurting someone or what that even means.
- Cry. Babies are capable of empathy; they may not understand a verbal explanation, but they instinctively know that crying is associated with unhappiness. In a number of studies, babies cry more when they're around other crying babies, as if to say, "I feel your pain, bro."