It’s a common concern as parents are scratching their heads wondering “Why is my toddler biting his playmate?” The cause of biting varies. It can be a part of socializing, teething, for territorial reasons or mimicking a behavior learned from his surroundings. Little ones act on impulse and some choose to bite. This goes for grabbing a playmate’s face as well as pinching or hitting.
Here are some examples from my past child care experience:
- A toddler I was caring for had a habit of chasing an infant at crawling stage. While the toddler was laughing she would grab hold of the baby and bite on the baby’s tummy. The toddler would only do this when the infant was crawling and not towards the other playmates. After several conversations with the Mom, we figured out the toddler was mimicking how they “play bite” their dog. So when the infant was crawling, this triggered a memory of how they “play bite” her dog, except the bite left a mark and a crying baby every time this happened. Toddlers generally don’t know the difference between real and pretend. So pay attention in how you roughhouse at home with each other as well as your pets.
- Another story from past experience . . . a toddler had a habit of grabbing a playmate’s face if someone was in her space. She grabbed so hard it made marks are her playmate’s face. Her parents were baffled as to why she was doing that. I understood that she was getting used to sharing her space with others, but I wasn’t sure why she was grabbing faces. Until I noticed when Mom was trying to get her little one’s attention, Mom would hold her chin (not in a hurtful way) so she could look at her. I didn’t think much of it as many parents do the same. However, when I pointed out that there may be a connection to Mom holding her chin and her little one grabbing faces, it made sense. Mom was more aware of the mimicking phase and paid better attention to how she was connecting with her daughter. Again, another example of how toddlers mimic their everyday surroundings.
- One more story to share. A toddler had a habit of pinching anyone on their leg or arm. I realized she would do this to get my attention when she was bored. With conversation with her Mom, she said she’s been noticing the same habit at home. After Mom talked to her older children, they explained to her how Grandma told them to pinch her if she misbehaves. And as her pinching became a habit, they would pinch her back. A mimicked behavior learned from surroundings.
All of these stories are examples of family members not intending to “teach” a bad behavior; however, created an invitation of a bad habit “taught” to toddlers.
Biting isn’t always picked up from surroundings. Sometimes a little one chooses to bite because he is teething, hungry, tired, or overstimulated.
Little ones use their senses to explore and mouthing is one way of exploring. Sometimes little ones bite out of affection mimicking an act of affection from a loved one. Instead of kissing the outcome is biting. Sometimes adults show playful affection to their little ones by playfully putting their open mouths on the child’s tummy or neck and blowing. Some call this “butterfly kisses” with all good intention.
Sometimes a toddler might feel “cornered” and get territorial with her space and toys she is playing with. Out of impulse a little on might bite, grab, pinch or hit in expression of her frustration.
What does a caregiver or parent do when a toddler bites?
First check if the bite mark shows broken skin or is bleeding. Administer appropriate first aid if needed. If there is no sign of bleeding, try to apply ice or a cold pack on the sore as long as the little one will allow you. While applying ice give the little one affection with a hug or invite him/her to sit on your lap for a while. Toddlers have a short attention span. So, don’t let too much time slip away before you try to express to the biter how biting hurts and it isn’t appropriate play. Talk in a calm nonthreatening and firm manner eye-to-eye to help the biter understand the seriousness of what just occurred. Some examples of possible things to say: “You bit her with your teeth (while pointing to your teeth or his teeth). She doesn’t like it. It hurts. It’s not okay to bite.” After all is said and done, redirect him/her to another activity, toy, or area. Giving toddlers a choice of what they want to play with helps too.
What not to do?
- Don’t lecture and go on and on about it. Toddlers may not fully understand or loose interest very quickly. Keep it brief, redirect, and then let it go.
- Don’t teach a toddler not to bite by biting back or pinching him or spanking him. This only teaches a toddler that it’s okay to be physical and gives the wrong message in how to express your frustrations.
Suggestions on how to reverse the habit of biting:
Once you noticed the first incident of biting, observe the toddler who bit throughout the day. It helps to learn what triggers the biting (territorial, tired, teething, hunger, mimicked behavior). Talk to the parents about the incident and let them know what you are doing to address the problem.
If it’s territorial (feeling cornered or struggling with sharing space or toys) you can be attentive when the mood arises. Try to catch the little one when he/she is getting frustrated and before another biting incident occurs. Acknowledge his/her frustration. “You don’t like it when Joey is taking a toy away?” Give the toddler some choices as to what he/she can do. You can redirect. If the toddler has some toys to share, ask him/her which one “Joey” can have. See article:SocialSkills and Sharing for Toddler Age Group
If he/she is tired, maybe an early nap is due. Talk to the parents about sleeping routines at home. Has he/she been waking up sooner than usual? Waking up a few times in the night from growing pains or teething?
If the toddler is teething, offer him/her a teething ring or some toys to mouth.
If the toddler is hungry, offer a small snack. Ask the parents if he/she's eating breakfast or should breakfast be served when at soon after arrival in care? Maybe the toddler is going through a growth spurt and needs bigger portions than usual.
If you need more answers, have a one on one conversation with the parents. Talk about your observations and patterns you’ve noticed. Discussions can lead to what could be triggering the biting and if it might be a mimicked behavior. Ask what (if anything) they have noticed at home?
Overall, it’s important to support and nurture the toddler who bit to help the little one understand that he/she is a lovable individual while you are teaching appropriate ways of how to socialize and be around others.
*Iva Consultant of Precious Years Consulting Service