Ouch! Biting hurts! Why is my toddler biting?

Eight reasons why toddlers bite and how to stop the behavior.

Figuring out why your child is biting can help provide the key to stopping the biting behavior.
Figuring out why your child is biting can help provide the key to stopping the biting behavior.

Toddlers are known to be challenging, and among those most challenging behaviors for many families is biting. Although it’s normal for toddlers to bite, it doesn’t make the behavior more acceptable or tolerated by child care centers, friends and families. Biting hurts! Figuring out why your child is biting can help provide the key to stopping the biting behavior.

So, why do babies and toddlers bite? Feeling anxious, teething, wanting to explore and wondering what reaction biting will bring are all some of the reasons why a child might bite. If you know why a child is biting, it’s easier to figure out what to do. By trying to understand what the child is trying to get by biting, you can meet those needs in some other way. If a child is biting to get attention, you can make sure to give positive attention to lessen the chances that the toddler will bite.

  • Muscle control. Babies and toddlers simply do not have good control over their muscles. They’re learning to hold on and let go, and sometimes biting is a way to practice that muscle control. Be sure to provide plenty of opportunities for pick it up and drop it games and other experiences for children to practice holding on and letting go.
  • A need to feel powerful. Children have very few opportunities to be in control. Biting can be a way to exert control. Give your child opportunities to make choices such as choosing clothing, snacks or even just things like which path to take to the car or which direction to turn on your walk. Set positive limits and offer real choices you can both live with.
  • Teething. It hurts when teeth come in! We often provide things for babies to put against their gums to feel that pressure, but we stop as toddlers get older. Make sure toddlers have appropriate things to chew on, food such as apples and carrots, or teething items such as biting sticks that are made for older toddlers.
  • Playing. Sometimes biting is a way to say hello and engage a peer. That might not make a lot of sense to us, right? Because we know better than to bite to say hi! But for infants, they’re just learning how to engage others, and biting sure gets a reaction! We can help by encouraging them to touch gently and acknowledge their interest in others by saying things like, “I know you like him! Can we give him a toy?” Provide enough age-appropriate toys and materials that children can play next to each other and not fight over one toy.
  • Getting attention. Babies and toddlers may bite to get attention. There is a saying that “negative attention is better than no attention at all.” Everyone hates to be ignored. We can discourage this by being really positive with biting toddlers. Make sure they are getting enough positive, warm and nurturing attention. This can be hard if your child is biting a lot, but we need to break the negative cycle of biting to get attention.
  • Copying. Babies learn a lot by imitating others. Biting is not an exception. Around 18 months, we will start to see toddlers observing and repeating actions, including biting. This is also why it’s so important that adults do not bite back. It teaches babies and toddlers to deal with frustrations by biting. Instead, model loving, nurturing relationships.
  • Frustration. Young children may bite when they feel frustrated. It could be that they are angry or frustrated because of unmet needs or because they haven’t been heard. Teach children how to ask for help with words or a sign. Teach them how to say, “I’m mad!” (or sad, etc.). Pay attention and go to them when you see they are getting frustrated. Let them know you understand by saying things like, “You’re getting frustrated.”
  • Anxiety. Sometimes biting is a way of letting go of tension. Adults might chew on gum or pen caps, smoke, or chew their nails. Young children might have generalized anxiety about what is happening around them—maybe their life at home has been unsettled, they just moved or their parents have been gone a lot. Work to figure out why your child is anxious. Allow them to have a comfort object like a special blanket or thumb sucking. Set aside special quiet time to connect with your child, rub their back or feet, stroke their hair or play soothing music to help relax them. Look for signs of stress in your children when things are unsettled, changing or different at home. Even things like holidays and visiting guests can cause stress in young children.

It’s important to remember babies and toddlers are not biting to “be bad.” They are biting to meet a need they have. Oftentimes parents will ask if biting back is a helpful strategy. The theory behind this is usually to show a child that biting hurts. Biting back is not helpful. It only hurts your child. Parents can help babies and toddlers learn to meet their needs in a safe, gentle way, but they need us as parents and caregivers to be patient and loving while they are learning those new skills.

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the Michigan State University Extension website. 

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