My girlfriend’s son was a biter. He’s in college now, but back when he was 3 he developed the nasty habit of biting his classmates. In time she realized that it happened when he was frustrated about something another child had done (like playing with a toy he wanted), but in the beginning it seemed to happen without explanation. One day he bit a little boy and the mother demanded my friend take her child for an HIV test to assure that he wasn’t going to "infect" her child. My friend calmly replied, "I’ll get my son tested if you get your son tested. After all, I wouldn’t want my son to get an infection from your child either." The mother of the bitten child didn’t pursue it, but the incident was devastating.
Even before her children were born my girlfriend read lots of parenting books. She created a loving, nurturing home. She used gentle, but firm discipline and she and her husband set a great example for the children to follow. She had an older daughter whose behavior was nearly flawless and then completely out of the blue her son went to preschool and started biting.
"Why?" she asked. "Why is my child biting?" This is a question that has puzzled parents through time.
Toddlers bite for many reasons. Sometimes it’s to show aggression, but many times it’s something else. Many toddlers don’t have the language to express what they are feeling. Since they don’t have the words, some children may communicate by biting, hitting or shoving. Others may do it to get attention and still others bite when they’re tired, hungry or not feeling well. For the most part biting is a phase that usually passes by age 3 or so. But biting is very emotionally charged so even though it’s developmentally normal, it can’t be ignored.
The first response from many parents when a child bites is to get very excited and yell. Some may even hit the child, but that’s exactly the wrong response. Hitting a child who bites is communicating that hitting, not biting, is the appropriate response to a frustrating situation.
The most effective way to help a child stop biting is by using immediate, unemotional intervention. It’s important to be unemotional because for some children getting attention from an adult (even if it’s negative attention like hitting or yelling) will reinforce their behavior. Speak calmly and keep language to a minimum. This isn’t the time to try to logically explain why biting is bad. Simply say "Biting hurts. No biting" and put the child in time out. The rule of thumb for time out is one minute per year of age, so a 2-year-old would be in time out for two minutes. After the time out, give your child some coping skills. For example, if your child was biting out of frustration give your child the words to match his emotions: "It makes you feel angry when Noah takes your toy. When you’re angry you cannot bite or touch another person, but here’s what you can do instead ..." This gives your child language and strategy for coping with negative emotions.
Try to find out why your child is biting. It may be helpful to keep a log of what happened right before the incident because you may see an opportunity to intervene before the child bites. On rare occasions biting is part of a developmental problem. These children may also drool, eat things that aren’t food or chew items. Talk to your pediatrician if you see this pattern.
It will stop one day
Biting can feel like a problem that will never end, but consistency is key and almost every child will eventually stop.
My girlfriend used to get a sick feeling whenever the preschool called to say her son bit another child. But after some careful observation, more angry parents and a few sleepless nights my girlfriend realized her son had trouble expressing his feelings so he would get angry and bite. She began to work to help him find words to express himself and at the same time developed a time out plan for home and school. She kept in close contact with the teachers to be sure everyone was using the same strategy. Within a short time he learned how to get his point across without biting and he returned to being just another curious, playful, energetic preschooler.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at email@example.com.