Toddlers and Biting: Is it Normal?
While biting is never an ideal response, it is well within the range of normal at a young age (biting often becomes a problem for 2-year-olds). Babies use their mouths all the time to explore the world around them. “Mouthing” everything is developmentally appropriate and expected. Sometimes mouthing turns into biting, and babies don’t know that it’s not okay to bite people unless you tell them.
The best time to stop biting is right when it starts. If the biting becomes a big habit, it will be harder to stop. But below is everything you need to know about toddlers and biting.
Why Do Toddlers Bite?
You might ask yourself, “Why does my toddler bite for no reason?” But as it turns out, toddlers bite for a lot of reasons. As mentioned above, babies learn about the world by putting objects in their mouths. (I’m sure you’ve noticed this little fact when you look down in horror to see your little one chomping on a scrap of trash.)
Even unprovoked toddler biting has an underlying reason. The reason just might not be as obvious. The following list will give you some helpful insights when it comes to toddlers and biting. These tips can be utilized whether your toddler is biting at daycare, at home, or elsewhere.
- Mouthing turns into biting. Once babies get their first teeth (usually around six months), it’s natural that their mouthing of objects turns into biting. And it’s also a new skill they are trying to figure out once they get those teeth in. They have to test-drive their new chompers, and sometimes they might test it out on you!
2. Teething. A child might also bite because they are getting new teeth in. Biting can help with pain relief, so you might find your little one fussier and biting down on objects (or other people!) when they have new teeth coming in.
3. Oral-motor input. Some children just need that oral-motor input. What I mean is, they may just be seeking the feeling of something in their mouth to regulate their sensory system. You can read more about that from an Occupational Therapist’s perspective right here.
4. Attention. Some children are just biting because they are trying to get attention. This might happen more frequently if you react too strongly to their biting. Children are very smart when it comes to getting attention, and if you give them lots of attention (even if it’s negative) when they bite, they may try biting more often to get the continued attention.
5. Feeling overwhelmed. Children might bite because they are feeling overwhelmed by something. Sometimes children act out because there is too much going on, so they bite to try to stop whoever or whatever is happening.
6. Difficulty communicating. Sometimes, children who don’t have clear communication skills use biting to get what they want or try and get away from something they don’t like. If your child can’t communicate clearly, biting might be the way your little one tells you he wants something to change.
If you need more tips on helping a child who has difficulty communicating, check out my post here for my best tips.
7. Needing to feel in control. Babies and toddlers are rarely in control of their circumstances. Adults decide when they sleep, eat, go, stay, and so many other things. Sometimes children want to feel like they have control, so they may try out biting.
8. Feeling hungry. Your child simply may be hungry and they aren’t sure how to tell you or they aren’t able.
Check out this great resource on biting and why your child might be doing it from the National Association for the Education of Young Children
What Strategies Can I Use to Help My Toddler Stop Biting?
First, it’s helpful to figure out WHY your child is biting. Knowing the why behind the biting (or really any negative behavior) can be helpful in finding the best solution for your little one. Once you have that figured out, you can work on preventing it.
When your baby bites for the first time (if it’s just you or your partner), it may be best to ignore it. You may be surprised that your child bit you and react strongly, but try to avoid this. (Easier said than done! When my youngest first bit me I had a little yelp of pain and then tried to stay calm.) If you ignore it, there is a good chance it won’t happen again.
However, if your child is a “repeat offender”, and has bitten a lot, this probably isn’t the best strategy for you. And if your child is biting a sibling, a friend, or any other person that can’t “shake it off”, ignoring it is not the right answer.
Use Clear and Consistent Vocab
When your child bites, be sure to use the same vocabulary to talk about it. Be clear and concise as you tell them that it is not okay to bite. Use a firm voice, but do not yell. You can say something like, “No. Do not bite. Biting hurts.”
By using precise language, the child has a better chance of understanding what you are saying. If you yell or get too frustrated, children will have a harder time processing the language.
Find an Alternative Item to Bite
My favorite way to change ANY behavior is to figure out an appropriate replacement behavior. Children (especially young children) can get confused about what they SHOULD do if you tell them “NO”. Instead of just yelling “no” (or if you can stay patient, you might just say “no” firmly), give children a thing that they can do! In this case, if your child is a repeat biter, give them something else to chew on!
Babies and toddlers who are teething might need a good teething toy to relieve some pain. If you give them an appropriate toy to bite, they may not feel the need to bite you or anyone else. I love these little keys that you can put in the freezer for extra soothing. This is another great teether that doubles as a little toy.
As I mentioned above, children may just be seeking some sensory input. If that seems to be the case, you can offer items for them to chew on specifically for oral stimulation. You can try this chewy that your child can hold onto or this one, that has a nice knobby texture. These chewy toys are more often used for older kids. I’ve seen teens and young adults use these chewies to help them with the oral input they need.
Some children just need some of that sensory input, and they need to chew. So if you can help them to chew something like a chewy tube, that is a win!
Let Them Have a Snack
This tactic is similar to the option above because it is about helping your child find an alternative to biting. It’s also fairly straightforward. Your child might be biting because they are hungry and need a snack.
They also might be biting because they need some of that sensory input, and a snack just might be the perfect answer. Go for something crunchy (and hopefully healthy) like crackers, carrots, or an apple.
Give Them Words to Communicate
Sometimes biting is a way of communication. It might be that your child wants a toy back that someone took from them, or they may want you to look at them and give them attention. Your child might be feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. The problem is that they can’t say these things, so they bite.
Give your child the words they need to help them get what they want. If you are around when your child bites, try to figure out why they are biting. Be clear and concise and give them specific words they can use. Then let them practice.
If your child bit someone else because they wanted a toy, you can say, “No. We don’t bite.” Then after your child has calmed down say, “If you would like a toy someone else has you can say “May I have a turn with that toy?” You do not bite when you want a toy. Then have your child practice doing that in a kind, controlled manner.
Give them the exact words to say to help them understand that using words works better than biting. And make sure when they use words the next time to tell you what they need or want, give them a quick, appropriate response. (So if they say, “I want up”, you tell them they did a good job using their words and then pick them up!)
A child who consistently has a difficult time communicating may bite more frequently. If you think your child has a delay in speech and language, you may need to get an evaluation done for your child. You can also check out my resource here that includes all of my favorite tips for late talkers.
Remove Child From the Situation
If your child is getting angry and the biting continues, remove them from the situation. Sometimes children bite because they are overwhelmed and over-stimulated. Additionally, they might just need space and time to calm down.
Call in Reinforcements: Books on Biting
Sometimes having a book to reference or relate to helps children regulate their biting. It might help to have these on hand to use when biting comes up. You and your child can talk about biting and what the characters in the book do instead of biting.
1. Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick
2. People Don’t Bite People by Lisa Wheeler
3. Little Dinos Don’t Bite by Michael Dahl
4. No More Biting for Billy Goat: by Bernette Ford
What if my toddler is biting at daycare?
Admittedly, if your toddler is biting at daycare, it will be harder for YOU to stop. But you can still implement some of the above tactics. It’s also important for you to have a direct conversation with your daycare provider about the situation. Biting is a common behavior among toddlers, and your daycare may or may not have strategies to help your child. Give them some of the ideas you have learned about, and as a team, you can troubleshoot the issue.
What should I do if the biting doesn’t stop?
First of all, try to be patient. Most kids will stop biting if you implement the above strategies, but it WON’T happen overnight. Just like any behavior change, it’s going to take some time.
But if you truly feel like you have done everything you can to stop the biting, then it’s time to talk to a professional. Talk to your doctor to get more help and resources. Here’s one last great resource that has a few more insights on what to do when you don’t know what to do anymore.