Biting events feel alarming and shocking. However, biting is just a normal and short-lived phase that some children go through.  Sometimes it is simply a non-verbal way that children make their feelings known or seek attention. Equally it could be a strategy they use to resolve an immediate conflict.  At other times gnawing at something or somebody is just a way of exploring what that object feels like in their mouth. Parents of a child that bites and a child that has bitten, will both feel upset that one has inflicted pain on the other. Recognise that young children do not really understand the consequences of their actions and try to remain calm about the situation.

Top tips:

  • Calmly remove the child who has bitten away from the child who has received the bite
  • Immediately give caring attention to the child who has been hurt first
  • Avoid giving too much attention to the child who has bitten and give simple, consistent messages
  • Consider the context “What, when, who, where”
  • Try to understand why this might be happening to avoid future situations
  • Be realistic, it may not resolve immediately but it is a phase a child will pass through

Want to know more?

Why does a child bite?

There can be many reasons why a child bites.  In many cases it is simply a shorthand form of non-verbal communication.  Biting is a basic and primal response, groups of small puppies will often “nip” each other in play and young children can equally do this!  It can signal “get out of my space” or “I am upset that you took my took my toy” or simply “what does this taste like” or “I am here”.

There are four main types of biting:

  • Experimental biting: young babies will often mouth items to explore them, this may result in a bite to another person. Give them teething rings or items they can safely chew.
  • Frustration biting: young children often find it hard to co-operate with other children and may respond to their demands by biting or hitting.
  • Powerless biting: children can sometimes feel that they have no power and can resort to biting when they want to command attention.
  • Stressful biting: if children are feeling emotional, biting can be an outlet for their distress.

If biting becomes a regular occurrence with a particular child, it can be distressing for all involved.  It is hard for adults not to over-react to biting episodes but it is usually a phase that is short-lived and children will grow out of it.

When biting becomes a problem

Occasionally biting becomes habitual and some children get fixated on this behaviour. The adults involved need to agree their response and give consistent messages to a child who might bite. Most importantly, stay calm and remove the child who has bitten away from the child who has been hurt. Always give initial, caring attention to the child that has received the bite.  Some children are keen to seek attention even if it is negative; they may quickly learn that adults take notice if they do something dramatic.  If the child is trying to get noticed they need to understand that biting is not the way, so adults should minimise their response. Children are still learning how to behave, so ensure they are given positive attention for the behaviours that adults want to see e.g. “Sam that was very kind of you to pick up your baby sisters teddy for her”.

When the child who has been hurt has been comforted and attended to; a short amount of attention can be given to the child who did the biting.  A short clear message is enough for a child who can understand “you hurt Sarah, it is not kind to bite people”.

To eliminate opportunities for biting it is important to consider the context.  Were children bunched together in a small space?  Did one of them take a toy from the other? Was the child who bit involved in an activity and did another child interrupt? Is this a child who enjoys mouthing objects in general?

Learning to Communicate

Later when a child is calm and if they are old enough to articulate their feelings, ask them why they bit the other person.  They may be able to tell you exactly what happened and how it made them feel. You may be able to help them with strategies for when they are feeling frustrated or unhappy with a situation e.g. “I know that your brother snatches things from you but he is only little and if you find something else he might like, he may put your toy down”

Children are still learning language and biting is really a short cut way of expressing themselves and communicating.  A child’s brain takes a little longer to process language than the mature adult brain.  Biting is an immediate response and the child doesn’t have to think about the right words to use.  Talk to children regularly about their feelings and encourage them to express themselves and find the right words. Biting events will gradually decrease as they become more able to use the right language. 

Young children find it hard to regulate their behaviour often because they simply don’t understand other ways of dealing with a situation.  When they have strong emotions crying, hitting, biting, stamping their feet can often be a response.  Encouraging them to express themselves verbally as they mature, is important in helping them to convey what they are feeling.  However, be aware that mid tantrum is not a time when they are able to use their reasoning brain. The brain is effectively “short circuiting” at that point and is by passing the areas that can help them to be verbal and reasonable. It takes time for children to develop the right brain pathways and exercise these sufficiently so that they can use them when under stress. When they are calm, then you may be able to talk with them patiently and help their understanding.

Being alongside children in times of difficulty helps to calm children, this is known as co-regulation. Wise two way conversations between adults and children, helps them to develop their thinking. They are then better able to gain empathy, understand others and begin to regulate their own behaviour in times of stress and upset. Children will develop these  skills at different rates as personalities are unique and complex. So be realistic and be patient, biting is a phase!

 

For More Information:

Stop children biting and hitting: Top tips and strategies for parents – BBC Tiny Happy People

Temper tantrums – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

How to Manage Children Biting in Nursery Settings | Early Years Management | Teach Early Years

Biting: A Fact Sheet for Families | ECLKC (hhs.gov)

Toddler Biting: Finding the Right Response – ZERO TO THREE