The Biting Phenomenon

The Biting Phenomenon

Biting behavior in young children is a fairly common occurrence.  It is estimated that one in 10 toddlers exhibits biting tendencies.  It is largely considered to be a normal developmental phase for both infants and toddlers, though if at age three a child continues to bite, it may signify other behavioral problems.  While this behavior is indeed natural, caregivers should also be informed on how to address it when it occurs.  This article attempts to explain the causes of biting in infants and toddlers and the possible solutions to it.

Early childhood theorists suggest that infants and toddlers aged up to 36 months use biting as a means of exploration, an expression of frustration or a form of communication.  If the behavior is exhibited in infants, it is most likely the infant’s way of exploring the surrounding world, as the mouth is one of the most developed parts of the infant’s body.  Biting can also be seen as a primitive form of communication, in that babies do not yet associate biting with pain.  Other possible explanations include teething pain relief, excitement or overstimulation, and experimentation with cause and effect.  Experts suggest providing frozen bagels, chew toys or other safe items for infants who are teething.

Toddlers (aged 12 months to 36 months) who bite do so for much the same reason as infants do, i.e. as a form of communication.  Toddlers begin to learn social, language and self-control skills at this time and may employ biting as a show of their frustration.  They have not yet acquired the skills of language to control a situation, or their attempts at communication are not understood or ignored.  In these cases biting becomes an effective way of controlling a situation and the environment, as well as a way to demonstrate autonomy and quickly be appeased.  Other reasons for biting in toddlers include stressful situations, lack of routine, minimal adult interaction, self-defense or imitation of other toddlers.  Toddlers do not yet understand the concept of sharing or that biting causes pain and must be taught to communicate in a more appropriate manner.

Biting is occasionally exhibited in preschoolers and can be attributed to mostly the same reasons that infants and toddlers bite.  However, if consistent biting persists even after a child turns three, there may be other behavioral problems at play.  It is thought that by age three, most children have acquired the language and communication skills necessary to express their needs, and therefore biting becomes unnecessary.  In some cases, preschoolers who bite may have tactile dysfunction or sensory integration dysfunction.  Children with these conditions may not respond well to touch sensations, becoming hostile, aggressive or anxious.  These instances may lead to biting.

When biting occurs, it is suggested that the following measures be taken:

In the case of infants, as they are too young to know the difference between biting a toy and biting a person, they should be admonished in an honest tone of voice that also expresses pain (e.g. “Ouch, Kenny, that hurt me!”).  In such a way, infants four months and older can be socialized not to bite others.

Caretakers should stress communication skills when teaching children not to bite.  They should encourage their children to use words to express their feelings, with words like “stop” and “mine”.  Positive language is effective in teaching children not to bite—rather than saying “Don’t bite”, it is more effective to tell children to “touch gently”.

Biting the child back as a form of punishment is strongly discouraged.  This conveys to the child that violence is acceptable.  Instead, experts say that punishment in general is not advised, and attention should instead be given to the victim.  If the biter is two years or older, it is suggested that they may learn from aiding in the first aid process by gently touching the victim, rubbing the victim’s arm or generally helping to take care of the victim.  Still others will insist that the biter be removed from the situation altogether.  The caregiver will ideally make these judgment calls based on the situation.

To reduce the frequency of biting occurrences, it is suggested that the density of the toddlers be broken up (one group in the room, one outside, etc.) to enhance program quality.  A consistent routine also helps, as does finding ways to calm the children after high-energy activities and during transition periods.

Caretakers and parents alike should be informed and have a clear action plan when dealing with a biter.  As it is fairly normal behavior, there is no need to apologize to the parent of the victim on behalf of the biter, and there is no foolproof way to prevent it.  Instead, caregivers should inform parents on the measures being taken to ensure the safety of all of the children.  Parents and caregivers should work together to teach biters to express their feelings through words rather than bites, so that they may be better able to control their inner feelings and actions.

This post is summarized by Susan Ahn for COIPI from: Banks, Ron. & Yi, Sojin. “Dealing with Biting Behaviors in Young Children“.  The Early Childhood and Parenting Colaborative. 2002. Children’s Research Center. 
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