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Just about as soon as children sprout teeth they discover what teeth really are good for. My year-old second son discovered that a quick nip during breastfeeding resulted in a very amusing jump and yelp on my part. (Amusing to him! Needless to say he was graduated to a sippy cup pretty soon…) Biting is a most excellent way to get attention and even to get one’s way. Why wouldn’t a toddler bite, when biting accomplishes so much?

Even grown-ups who should know better have been known to bite. At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, a boxer was disqualified after he bit his opponent on the shoulder. In the audience was American boxer Evander Holyfield who was bitten on the ear by opponent Mike Tyson during a match in 1997.

Hitting is effective too, as most older children realize, but hitting requires some coordination and some force (which even professional boxers might feel they don’t have enough of). Toddlers don’t have much upper body strength and they don’t have much ability to aim a blow.  Biting is easy. Not only that, but the other thing one can do with a mouth – talk – is something toddlers can’t manage. It’s useless to ask a nonverbal child to “use her words.” So biting is the method of choice. Little kids bite when they have no other way to get their point across.

What To Do About Biting?

So rather than asking “Why do children bite?” we might ask ourselves, “What to do instead?” If a small child bites because he is angry or frustrated, how else can he ease his anger or get what he wants? And how can we convince a non-verbal child that biting is not socially acceptable?

First off, let’s remind ourselves that we’re talking about toddlers up to about age two. Children who are old enough to speak should be reminded to talk out their anger, at the very least. The older a child is the less biting can be forgiven as part of his age.

But if your toddler or if toddlers in your care bite, here are some strategies to try:

  1. Be vigilant. If you can deflect the bite before it happens, then not only will there be no painful bite marks on somebody but the biter will learn more quickly not to bite. This means that when two toddlers are playing together, be aware of disputes. Intervene by redirecting one toddler or the other before a bite can happen.
  2. When a bite happens, be quick with a verbal correction: “No biting!” Please do not hit your child or bite back (I’ve actually had parents suggest biting back as a strategy!). Notice that this verbal correction has to happen immediately, not minutes later when you notice the bite marks. Children have very, very limited memories.
  3. Once you’ve made the verbal correction, lavish your attention on the victim. Pick him up, soothe him, offer him a choice toy. If the bite was caused by a dispute over a toy, remove that toy altogether – don’t give it to the victim, since the biter might decide to try to get it once again.
  4. As quickly as possible, resume normal play. But remember to be vigilant and try next time to avoid the bite altogether.
  5. If your child bit someone else’s tot, you must apologize and probably remove your child from the sandbox or wherever it is you are. Biting is not viewed casually by other parents and bite marks will linger as a reminder of the event. Make no excuses. Apologize.

Although there are no good excuses for biting, children may be inclined to bite because they are teething. Itchy gums make biting top-of-mind, as you can imagine. If this is the case for your child, give him things to bite that are acceptable: teething toys, a washcloth, or teething biscuits. You might find using a gum-soothing product or pain-reliever that’s safe for infants helpful as well.

The Good News

Biting is an issue for only a few months. Most children quickly move on to talking out their disputes (okay, they move on to yelling and throwing tantrums) or they become good at hitting and shoving. The road to socially-acceptable behavior is long and winding and parents are advised to be prepared.

Remember, it’s important to model what you want to see – no hitting, smacking, or screaming at your child – and to realize that helping your toddler become a model citizen takes time.