Biting in the early years is not different from other aggression. Some biting can be benign and transient. A frustrated toddler does not have rich language and is likely to use her body to express herself. If you respond quickly to the first try quickly, clearly, and kindly, there won’t be a second time. If your daughter is repeating the biting, two things are happening: Your responses are not clear TO HER. And, the reason for her drive to bite has not been addressed.
There is much more biting in daycares and group settings than there is in children who spend their days with their parents. However, biting does occur, to a lesser degree, in youngsters at home.
A child is always innocently pursuing her needs. Whatever she does is rooted in a valid reason or has a specific and worthy purpose. She could be hungry, learning cause and effect, teething, imitating another child, or frustrated. She could also be reacting to the wheat, dairy, soy, sugar, food additives, or other allergens. If your child is biting excessively or otherwise aggressive, check her for allergies through hair analysis or muscle testing, study the Feingold diet, and check to see if her life is too frustrating for her.
Why do Toddlers Sometimes Bite?
Instead of focusing on the biting, focus on finding the underlying reasons your toddler needs to bite. I don’t mean what she wants at the moment (candy, toy) but the reason she resorts to expressing herself by biting. Look for frustration, loneliness, jealousy, helplessness or a need for affection and autonomy. Take care of the underlying causes and the symptom will vanish. Yelling, punishing or threatening doesn’t help because the cause is not addressed and the child feels worse and will therefore bite more.
Sometimes a toddler escalates to biting after she sees that we tolerate violations of the body and the environment. She is simply participating in what she is observing. Notice how you treat yourself and model total respect for your own and your child’s bodies.
The need to bite is often the result of feeling too restricted. Expecting a child to restrain herself (be quiet, abide by our needs or be polite) can lead to rage and a sense of helplessness. Even with the most responsive of parents, a toddler often feels powerless and frustrated. A loud reaction to her bite can satisfy her need to feel powerful, “wow I caused a scream.” In my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, you can read a whole chapter about children’s need for autonomy and power and how to meet that need through play so the child won’t need to bite or hit.
A toddler who feels connected, loved, autonomous, and at peace is not likely to bite. She has no need for it. Therefore the first path of prevention is respecting your toddler’s autonomous inner guidance, avoiding undue expectations and restrictions, and staying close and connected. This may include avoiding peer play, which is often much too difficult for young children. Notice how much happier your baby is with an older child or with you.
Take your daughter’s cues seriously; she relies on your care. If she bites to get attention, she may need more attention; it is a real and valid need. If she is frustrated, consider reducing the amount of stimulation and providing toys and interactions that are fit for her ability.
Another way to prevent biting is to reduce stress and slow down. Stay at home more, and spend time with your toddler.
Reacting to the First Bite
When a toddler tries to bite for the first time, your swift, clear, physical, and caring response can prevent a repeat performance. Many parents hesitate and react too slowly. Trying to be nice, they forget to lead the way. A mother said to me, “I tell him nicely not to bite and that it hurts, but he still bites.”
Toddlers learn best with their bodies. Be respectful and kind but also physical, swift, and clear. If she bites a child, rush and scoop her (as you would have had she ran toward the street) while saying something like, “Whoops, oh no!” in a clear but kind tone. The first time can easily be the last if your response is clear. If you try words first and then, when the child is deeper into her action you intervene, she will do it again. She does not take it seriously if you don’t. Be kind, loving, and connected when you stop her. Do not judge or preach. Instead, make eye contact, smile, hug, and validate, “Did you have enough of playing with Lili?” She may be hungry, or she may need to cry or just stay close to you. You can also offer her something to bite in a form of food or an item.
Biting the child to “teach” her what it feels like confuses and hurts her. Your action tells her that this is something to do. You are doing it. Her reaction is going to be pain, dismay, and fear since you are the one she relies on for unconditional love and safety. Giving a mini-lecture to a toddler is not beneficial either. All the child can hear is, “Dad is not pleased with me. I am bad.” The result is self-doubt and therefore often more biting.
Meeting the Needs
To prevent the causes of biting meet the basic needs for love, attention, connection, and nurturance. This is not equal to always getting whatever she wants. An emotionally content child does not develop so many wants. The wants are substitutes for these primal needs. Being physically close and protecting the toddler’s autonomy prevents most difficulties with young children.
Much of the biting is just playful. Whatever the toddler does tells us how to be helpful. If she bites because she likes the effect, we can offer other activities that satisfy that need. Let her turn the light on and off or the volume of the stereo high and low; let her push a wagon, spray the yard with the hose, or produce other dramatic effects.
There is never a need to scold or be upset with the child. She has no bad intentions at all. She is doing the best she can to take care of herself. She does need guidance, a meeting of her needs, a safe outlet for her frustration or playfulness, love, and affection. Be your child’s ally. Toddlers don’t bite, hit, break things, etc., when they are content, and when we respond to their initiatives promptly, in a physical, clear, and peaceful way. If a toddler tears books respond quickly by replacing the books with a pile of old magazines. If she smears food in her hair, bring the camera and enjoy the fun; there will be plenty of time to clean up and not much time to enjoy the baby and toddler years.
Stopping the Already Biting Toddler
If your child is already a biter, not only can you provide for the underlying needs, but also be alert to prevent the biting. You know what sets her off or what circumstances are more likely to bring up her biting. Catch it before it happens and prevent the setups that bring biting on. After a period of time without biting, if she also has her deeper needs met, the child will forget about it.
Meeting the child’s needs for closeness, affection and human connection are at the heart of preventing all types of aggression and emotional difficulties. Stay close, responsive, and delighted by your toddler, and her happiness will keep her at peace with herself and with others.
They trusted my guidance because I was always on their side. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” I would move quickly and gently stop the action and offer a solution, “I see that you want to bang the floor with the broom; here, you can bang on the porch.” If I could not offer a solution, I would still be there to stop the action physically and then validate feelings if needed. For example, if my toddler wants to take a toy I don’t intend to buy from the store, I would say, “I see that you love this doll house and wish to take it home. I understand how you feel. Would you like to watch it a bit longer? I can wait.”
This approach allows the child to see Mom and Dad as her allies. “She saw what I needed and provided it for me.” Or, “When I pulled books out of the cabinet and tore them, she brought me a huge pile of bigger books (magazines) so I can tear them. Mom understands my needs.” If there was no solution, she still experiences, “mom understands my feelings.” The child does not interpret what she wants as bad, just not doable.
All these needs are variations of feeling helpless. To give the child an outlet to express her need for power, play “Power Games.”1 Power games are initiated by your children and are often stopped by you. If your child is running away from the diaper or pajamas, instead of stopping her intent, play with it. You can say, “Oh no, she ran away again,” run after her, barely catch her, then let her slip again and repeat the show. Children start many such games. Be attentive and open-minded. Or, you can play variations on Simon Says and follow your child’s lead. Getting satisfaction playfully, he will have no need to bite or gain power in other ways.
Let your child feel satisfied and bring the game to an end when she is satiated. If you initiate the end of the game, the child will perceive you as having the power all along and the healing and joy will be lost.
Biting Other Children
If your child bites in a play group, she is too frustrated and would be better off without the group. There is no rush to get children into peer experience, which is unnatural and creates unnatural social difficulties. Letting her play with adults or with one older and caring child often dissolves the biting.
Siblings biting is similar to the playgroup challenge, only the setting cannot be changed. The child who bites a sibling is obviously frustrated and needs more connection with adults. Knowing that this is the cause can help you to be compassionate, validating, and maybe more creative in finding ways to spend one-on-one time with each child. Meeting the Needs
To prevent the causes of biting; meet the basic needs for love, attention, connection, and nurturance. Yet, if you have more than one child such closeness is not always possible. Do your best to make room for all children to be close to you. Sit to breastfeed on a large couch, hold a hand of a child who cannot sit on you, and connect with touch and with words like, “As soon as the baby falls asleep, we will read together. I am looking forward to being with you.”
Whatever the toddler does tells us what she needs. If she bites because she likes the effect, we can offer other activities that satisfy that need. Let her turn the light on and off or the volume of the stereo high and low; give her a toy that squeaks when squeezed; let her push a wagon, spray the yard with the hose, or produce other dramatic effects.
There is never a need to scold or be upset with the child. She has no bad intentions at all. She is doing the best she can to take care of herself. She does need guidance, a meeting of her needs, a safe outlet for her frustration, love, and affection.
Be your child’s ally. Toddlers don’t bite, hit, break things, etc., when they were content, and when we respond to their initiatives promptly, in a physical, clear, and peaceful way. If a toddler tears books respond quickly by bringing a pile of old magazines. If she smears food in her hair, bring the camera and enjoy the fun; there will be plenty of time to clean up and not much time to enjoy the baby and toddler years.
©Copyright Naomi Aldort