Many of us have experienced or can empathise with how worrisome it is to have a child that is biting. The truth is that for many children aged 1-3 years this is a common and often passing phase of child development.
As children develop communication and language skills, learn to regulate their emotions and engage pro-socially, biting often ceases. While it is not unusual developmentally for young children to bite, it doesn’t diminish the concern families have about this behaviour. Fortunately there are a number of ways families can support children through the biting stage. First, we must understand why children bite.
Why does biting occur?
There are many developmental factors which may cause children to bite.
Your child may be teething. Teething pain is often alleviated when pressure is applied to the gums for example when biting. As an alternative to biting to relive pain, you might comfort and play with your child to distract them from the pain in their gums or you may offer cooled teething rings. If the pain isn’t managed with these strategies, then in consultation with your child’s pharmacist or GP, you may apply teething gels or provide paracetamol/ibuprofen, particularly if the teething is causing a low-grade fever.
Young children learn through sensory exploration and use their mouth to explore their world. The act of biting down and letting go in this stage supports oral muscle development and connects to an important repetitive play behaviour.
I am sure you have seen this same play behaviour in action, when your child repeatedly and intentionally drop’s food from their highchair, practising holding on and letting go, delighting in watching the food as it falls to the ground, as you look on in dismay at the prospect at having to clean the resulting mess. Provide for your child’s exploratory learning by giving them safe and appropriately sized sensory toys they can mouth, post, throw, spin, stack and connect.
Children may bite to communicate a challenge. Young children are still learning how to understand, express and manage their feelings. Biting is a physical way to show emotions. Children may bite to communicate feelings of frustration or anxiety, hunger, or tiredness, the need for connection, or to show that they are over or under stimulated. Connect with your child to help them to calm, support them to manage their feelings, thinking and behaviours before providing for their need, i.e. sleep, food, play support, social support etc.
What to do when your child bites
Immediately in response to biting, or in anticipating of biting intervene and provide support by;
- Getting down to your child’s level, and if culturally appropriate, offer connecting eye contact.
- Respond calmly with an empathetic tone of voice, facial expression and body language by saying “I can see you’re feeling [insert emotion]. I’m here to help you”. Provide your child comfort and support them to calm and resolve the need that triggered the behaviour.
- Provide comfort and support to the child that was bitten. Acknowledge and validate their feelings e.g. “I can see you’re feeling really sad/scared. That must have been sore. I’m here for you.”
- Role model the appropriate resolution strategies as you support both children.
- Additionally if your child is over 3, when they have returned to a calm and regulated state you can have a conversation at an age-appropriate level, where you talk through the incident, the triggers and the strategies they can use instead of biting. For example, “You wanted your sister’s ball. It’s hard to wait. Next time you want the ball you can ask her by saying, “can I have a turn?”. Or, you can ask me for help.”