Here’s a question I got a LOT as a daycare teacher:
Is it normal for children to bite each other?
Some poor parents were distraught, thinking that their child was the social pariah of the classroom because he or she was a “biter”. Some parents were distraught because their child was getting bitten at school and they thought that shouldn’t happen.
The truth is, almost every child will bite another child at least once. Not necessarily out of intentional meanness, but just because at that age, every experience is a new experience. It’s our job as parents and educators to teach them which experiences to repeat and which ones are better left in the past.
Only about one out of every four children will go through an entire biting phase. This usually takes place between the ages of 1 and 3.
Biting often begins because children are teething and biting is a natural way to soothe their gums. You may notice that a teething child is willing to bite ANYTHING to get some relief. Because they are not aware of how their biting feels to the other children, they probably don’t notice much difference between biting a teething ring and biting their buddy.
There are several types of biters:
This type of biter is actually fairly rare. Most children don’t bite out of aggressive tendencies. Still, there are some who do. They should be dealt with as you would deal with a child who hits, kicks, pulls hair…etc. Separate the biter from the victim, focusing on the victim to model empathy. When the victim has been briefly taken care of, institute a quick and direct punishment for the biter. A spanking, time out, or other type of discipline that you know is effective for your child.
Make sure you are not waiting too long before you discipline the biter, as young children have short attention spans. If too much time passes between the incident and the consequences, they won’t know what they are being punished for and it will be ineffective.
Aggression in children needs to be nipped in the bud, before they get bigger and stronger and can turn into bullies. Sometimes there are underlying reasons for children’s aggressive behavior that also need to be followed up and dealt with.
Follow the aggressor, at least with your eyes if not physically, and watch for situations in which they get another child isolated. Biting often occurs in areas that are slightly hidden from the eyes of adults. They know they’re doing something wrong and they don’t want to be seen doing it. If you see the biter off in a corner, playhouse, behind furniture, etc. that’s a good indication that they are planning to bite.
One of the most common types of biters I came across at daycare was the defender. This is the child who does not actively seek out other children to bite, but will bite another child if he or she feels threatened. Sometimes the threat is real and they don’t know how else to defend themselves; sometimes the threat is merely perceived and they take preventative action. Either way, the key to stopping the defensive biter is empowering them to defend themselves in another manner.
Children typically start biting before they have gained verbal proficiency. One of the best ways to help the Defender is by teaching them words they can use when they feel threatened. “No!” “Stop!” “Help!” are all good one syllable words to teach young children. That way, if they get into a situation where they feel the need to bite, they can draw the attention of an adult instead.
Once they realize that you are going to protect them, the biting will decrease. This may take a little while as old habits die hard and they have to feel secure before they will relinquish their biting habit.
The Curiosity Biter
I’ll admit, this one I’m never quite sure what to do with. I’ve heard a lot of parents say that the cure to biting is to bite them back so they know what it feels like. I don’t know that this would work in the case of an aggressive biter or a defensive biter, but maybe it would work for a curiosity biter.
(anyone tried it and want to give their input?)
The Curiosity Biter is the child that just thinks biting is funny. They’re not malicious. They don’t seem to have any idea that biting is painful to their victims. It’s something to do that gets them a reaction, and they enjoy the attention.
Pay attention to the types of situations which preempt a bite. Some children will even begin eyeing an arm or a shoulder before they move in for the bite. Step in then!
Make sure that children are getting plenty of positive attention and interaction. I suspect that Curiosity Biters often bite out of boredom. Giving them alternative activities (maybe without the interaction of other children) can reduce the interest they have in biting.
It is also appropriate to discipline the Curiosity Biter. Even though they intentions are not malicious, they need to be taught that biting is not permissible. Make sure the child is aware of what they are being punished for and why. Talk to them about what they are allowed to bite (food, teething ring), but biting hurts when they bite other children.
What can I do as the parent of a biter?
First of all, if you have a child in daycare, believe the teachers. Please don’t be that parent who is so convinced that their child is an angel that they blame other children or teachers for their child’s behavior.
Secondly, don’t be ashamed. A child who bites is not a sign of parenting failure. BITING IS NORMAL.
Thirdly, determine which type of biter your child is and work with them and other adults (daycare teacher, church nursery worker, babysitter, etc.) to move your child through the biting phase as quickly as possible. Empower children to use words instead of teeth. Meet their needs (food, teething ring, attention). Teach them that biting is NOT an acceptable way to deal with their problems.
What can I do as the parent of a child who is being bitten?
Stay calm. Biting is normal and is not a good reason to get upset at the biter, their parents, or the teacher.
Show your child to stand up for themselves by using their words (“No bite!” “Ouch!”) to stop the offender and draw the attention of an adult. You can also teach them to put out their hand to keep a biter from coming near them.
Try to be understanding towards the parents of the biter, who are probably just as upset as you are about the situation. They are not bad parents. Different children go through different phases. For some it’s hitting, for some it’s throwing their food on the floor, for some it’s taking their clothes off… Kids have all kinds of weird behaviors that can turn into habits. Just because it isn’t something you’re dealing with in your family doesn’t mean they’re parenting wrong.
What is your experience with toddlers and biting? Any words of wisdom? Please share in the comments!