Recently, Busy Bee has come home from daycare with some little baby teeth marks on his skin. At the age of 14 months, Busy Bee is in a room of children aged 12-18 months…the peak of biting behaviors! We have definitely had periods of time in which we have had to repeat “No biting” like a broken record in our house, so I completely understand the frustration of trying to stop babies and children from biting.
Biting is a common behavior in these early toddler years for multiple reasons. At this age, biting can be a sign of pain from teething, an exploration of their environment (babies use their mouths like extra hands to gain information about their environment), a sign of frustration, or just to get a reaction.
It’s important to remember that at 12-18 months of age, biting is not a malicious act for your infant. Baby’s are very egocentric (self centered) at this age of development and they don’t have any real understanding of others pain. This is why we should never respond to these behaviors by repeating them to the child. I have often heard parents say that they have considered “biting them back” when they’ve been bitten by their child “to show them how it feels”. This only reinforces that the behavior of biting is ok (baby’s mimic behaviors of those around them) and at this stage in development they won’t understand that the pain they feel is in any way related to the activity of biting others (remember in their world they are the only ones who feel pain)! Children do understand “no” at this stage so repeating “no biting” is a good reinforcement that this behavior is unwanted. Other ways to you can express your dislike of this behavior are through negative reinforcement such as:
- Putting them down if they bite you while you are holding them,
- Stopping nursing for a few minutes when they bite while breastfeeding
- Looking away and avoiding eye contact with them immediately following the bite
- Giving attention to the “bitten child” rather than the “biting child” immediately following the event
Most importantly, try to avoid situations in which biting tends to occur to minimize harm done to others. Biting often occurs in situations in which your baby is tired, hungry, in pain or frustrated.
When older toddlers are biting, this is may be more of “a means to an end” or an act of frustration rather than a simple exploration of the environment. For these instances, the response should be more specific to the situation. Repeating “no biting” but adding “biting hurts” can help children at this age realize the consequences of their action. It can also be helpful to point out that the other child is crying because they are hurt from the bite.
After these initial few phrases, you should then shift attention to the child who is hurt. By not giving “the biter” the attention and instead focusing on “the bitten child” there is no further reinforcement for the behavior. If the biting child is speaking, it can also be helpful to teach them a way to communicate their feelings with simple phrases rather than biting during times of anger.
Biting can be a frustrating and even embarrassing behavior for parents and unfortunately isn’t resolved in a day. Try to stay consistent in your responses and above all avoid the situations to protect other children from bites. While you work on stopping the behavior all together, make sure you are watching children closely for signs they may bite and removing them from situations to keep other children safe. If your child is the bitten child, be sure to wash the area, soothe your child, and call their primary care if the skin is broken where the bite occurred. Human bites are high risk for infection so your child may need treatment.
Dr. Meyer is a pediatric endocrinologist at Dayton Children’s Hospital. She is the mother of two boys who she lovingly refers to as “Busy Bee” and “Sprout!” As part of the “Dr. Mom Squad,” Dr. Meyer blogs about her experiences as both as doctor and a mom and hopes to share insight to other parents on issues related to both parenting and kids health. Learn more about Dr. Meyer!