Little nippers: stopping your toddler from biting

Toddlers can bite for many reasons, but it's actually a common behaviour.
Toddlers can bite for many reasons, but it's actually a common behaviour. 

My son was a biter. For a period of a few months when he was a toddler, my normally well-behaved boy would sink his chompers into anything – toys, me, the furniture, and, most mortifying of all, other kids.

These days he’s a very well-behaved, non-biting six-year-old, with no damage sustained from this period (except for the rows of teeth marks on his cot, our dining table and any widow ledge that was his height). But at the time it was incredibly stressful and I would have done anything to stop it. Especially the day he bit another child at childcare. Oh, the shame! I know they don’t tell either parent who was involved, but as I took him home that day after signing the incident slip I felt like we both had flashing neon signs above our heads that spelt ‘GUILTY’.

But I’m not the first or last parent to go through it, because biting is a very common behaviour for toddlers. And while it may not feel like it at the time, your child will grow out of it. You just need the right techniques to get you both through it.

Toddlers bite for different reasons, so if your child is a chomper, start by observing what sets them off and then tailor your response to suit their behaviour. The Super Nanny site gives a few reasons for why it might happen:

  • Expressing positive emotions: Young toddlers can bite as a way of showing love (not that it feels like that if you’re on the receiving end!).

While it may not feel like it at the time, your child will grow out of it. You just need the right techniques to get you both through it

  • Experimenting: They’re learning how their body works and are constantly putting things in their mouths, which sometimes involves a nip. Toddlers can also nip when they’re over-excited, and don’t understand that it causes pain.
  • Defending: Young children learn to bite as a defense. This is especially the case with children who don’t yet have a strong vocabulary.
  • Controlling: Some children realise that biting is a way of getting other children (or their parents) to do what they want. They don’t always do it consciously, but as any child who’s ever tried it has learnt, biting is a fantastic way to get attention.
  • Frustration or irritation: Your child wants a toy back. Or they want a biscuit, or adult attention, or can’t cope with a situation. Or they may not understand turn-taking and sharing. Or things may have changed at home and he feels stressed. Biting can be the physical expression of an emotion they can’t articulate.

When my son was going through it, I worked out that he bit from frustration, or in playfulness. So, for us, distraction was the key: spotting when a chomp was on its way, then removing him from the situation, was a simple but effective solution. Sometimes it was as obvious as the old ‘What’s that over there?’ to shift his focus, followed by a quick chat about the plane in the sky or an imaginary person we could see, and he’d forget what was frustrating him and move on.

Of course, it didn’t work 100% of the time, but it did work, and after doing it for a few weeks one day I realised he’d just stopped. Most likely it occurred as his language developed and he was able to express his feelings in a less anti-social way.

Here are some other solutions to try, suggested by Lyn Fry, an educational psychologist:

  • Intervene: Children often clench their teeth before they bite, an unmistakable sign. If you see this happen, take your child away from what’s happening, preferably somewhere quiet, to calm her down.
  • Teach them it’s wrong: When your child bites, use simple but firm words. Try saying “That’s biting, that’s wrong” or just a firm “no”. Explain that it hurts others, and why you don’t like her doing it.
  • Teach them to express themselves: When things have calmed down, try to help your child find a less painful way to express their feelings. If she’s expressing love, teach her to hug rather than bite when she feels strong emotions. If she bites out of defense, show her how to tell someone she doesn’t want them too close by making a “stop” gesture. Or teach her to come and find you instead if she’s angry.
  • Reduce the effectiveness: When children bite to get attention, dealing with it is trickier. After the first big talking to, don’t try to continue to reason or explain. Give a firm “no”, then put yourself between the victim and biter, with your back to the biter. Give the victim sympathy and the biter a clear message that this is an unproductive way of getting attention.
  • Praise for good behaviour: Catch your child behaving well – when she’s not biting siblings, is playing well in groups, and not biting to get her way – and be generous with praise.

Finally, never ever bite your child back. It’s not only not effective, it teaches them that retaliating and hurting back is acceptable, which is certainly not the message you want to send. You’d be amazed how many people suggest to do this!

As for us, my daughter seems to have escaped the ‘biting age’ without as much as a nibble, so I think we’re in the clear. But the other day she was on the receiving end of a very large chomp at playgroup – there was a tussle over a toy, and before I knew it the other little girl leaned over and bit her on the arm. The girl’s nanna was with her and was horrified.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “She’s been doing this lately and my daughter’s at her wits’ end over it. I feel terrible.”

I reassured her by telling her I’d been just where she was, and that despite my daughter’s cries, I knew she was feeling a lot worse than I was.

Ah, toddlers … life with them is never dull!

Talk about biting and other toddler issues on the Essential Baby forum.