The word biting brings distressing memories to many parents of young children. Biting is a common phase that many young children go through as they navigate their initial interactions with the world. Through these interactions, they understand that they are independent beings capable of having an impact on the world. They explore limits around what is acceptable and what is not and gradually learn to communicate better.
While this is a process for young children, biting as a phase comes with a lot of stigma and shaming around parenting and the child itself. Understanding why biting happens might make it easier for us to look at is as part of a child’s development and address the issue instead of blaming and worrying.
What triggers Biting?
Some common physical triggers
Teething: Children begin teething anywhere between 3 and 12 months of age and by the time they are about 3 years, they usually have their full set of primary teeth. During the this phase, they experience sensitivity which makes them want to bite.
Oral Stimulation: When we look at biting, it is helpful to look at the diet we offer. Often, food for children are overly soft and mashed which give the sprouting teeth hardly any work to do. This leaves the teeth unsatisfied and children look for things to bite such as their toys, another child’s hands or even an adult.
Some common psychological triggers
Attention: Many children bite in order to get attention. This is quite frustrating for parents who feel like they already give enough attention to their little one. When there are many guests, especially other young children, at home, your child may feel like she does not get the attention she usually gets.
Lack of Vocabulary: When children lack the vocabulary to communicate their joy, frustration or excitement, they may bite to say “Hey, this is my toy” or “I don’t want to play with you!” but may not have the words to articulate this intent. Biting is a way of communicating this intention.
Asserting Power: In situations where toddlers feel like they have no control, biting helps them assert their power. They do not have the capacity or brain development to rationalise the consequences of biting. By biting, they simply try to communicate that they are in control.
Exploring Limits: Most of toddlerhood is spent in children trying to understand what is acceptable and what is not. They constantly try and do things and look at us to see our reaction. This is their way of understanding how the world works. With biting, which often gets remarkable reactions, children love to see what happens and how far they can go.
Understanding Group Play: Many of us have observed toddlers having difficulty sharing their toys or even their space. This is not because they do not know what sharing means, but merely because their brain is not yet fully developed to practice sharing. The prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for actions such as self-control is still developing in young children, making it hard to share.
Anxiety: Toddlers also bite when they are anxious. They may bite because they feel threatened or uncertain. This can be observed especially when they start at a new school or have some guests at home, birth of a sibling or a dog.
So what can we do about all the Biting?
- Firm not Loud
It is important to be firm but not loud. When a child has bitten, go down to their level, look into their eyes and say “NO”. This no will always remain a no and the more firm and consistent we are with it, the easier it is for the child to let the idea sit. They understand that we will not change our minds and that when they bite, we will stop them.
- Distract or Divert
Another helpful technique is to separate the two children. Sometimes, the child may just be overstimulated or excited, that they may end up biting. Taking the child for a walk or to a different place to calm down helps diffuse the tension.
- Breaking the Habit
Many children get into the habit of biting and this becomes second nature to them. It is important to observe what triggers the biting and try to step in before it begins. This will slowly lead to the child looking in our direction when they want to bite and we can then tell them from afar that they should not bite.
- Opportunities to Bite Food
It will help to give the child enough food to chew on such as apples, carrots, chapatis, beans, etc. Eating fibrous vegetables or fruits will give their teeth the much needed work and satiate the need to bite.
Typically, when a child has bitten another, we divert all our attention to the one who has bitten and this gives them attention. Instead, attending first to the child who has been bitten may take away the attention from the child who has bitten.
With young children, stories of children their age, with whom they can relate to, are helpful. These can be oral stories or stories from a book. It is helpful to have some books on biting that we can regularly read to and discuss with the child. Instead of having books that say what not to bite, we can choose a book that shows them the different foods that they can bite. This helps in positively shifting the focus to what to do instead of what not to.
What to avoid?
- Biting back to prove a point
Sometimes, we are desperate that we end up ‘pretending’ to bite the child in hope that this will make them understand how we feel. This is very confusing for the child and often funny because, as discussed earlier, it is not that toddlers don’t know that biting is wrong but the self-control is still emerging.
Isolating a child who has bit or giving them a time-out not only makes them feel cornered but also helpless. Instead, we can engage with them and show them what they can do. As adults, we do not like to be put in a corner and children are no different. Just as talking kindly helps us resolve our issues, talking to the child kindly shows them that we do not want to corner the child itself but only the action.
The most helpful tool for us as adults is patience and observation. As upsetting as it is for us to watch our child go around biting others, we must understand that this is only a phase! When we show children how to handle situations that trigger biting, they will learn to communicate better. Our biggest tool is observing their interactions. When we observe, we will notice when the biting happens and why and how it happens. This is the starting point as having the information is always helpful in handling the situation.