Toddlers Bite Other Children
By Elizabeth Pantley
worried mother asks, "Today at our play group my son BIT my
friend's daughter! My friend acted like it was a normal childhood
problem, and told me not to worry about it, but I'm horrified! Why
did my son do this? How can I prevent it from happening again?"
Your friend has obviously had some experience with toddlers, and
she knows that biting a playmate is common in this age group (perhaps
her daughter has already been on the other side of the action.)
Toddlers don't have the words to describe their emotions, they don't
quite know how to control their feelings, and they don't have any
concept of hurting another person. When a toddler bites a friend,
it most likely isn't an act of aggression: It is simply an immature
way of trying to get a point across, experimentation with cause
and effect, or playfulness gone awry.
not to do about biting
Many parents respond emotionally when their toddler uses his teeth
on another human being; their immediate response is anger, followed
by punishment. This is because we view the act from an adult perspective.
However, if we can understand that a toddler bite is most likely
a responsive reflex, we can avoid responding in the following typical,
yet unnecessary and ineffective ways:
Don't bite your child back to "show him how it feels."
He isn't purposefully hurting his playmate. He doesn't understand
that what he did is wrong, so by responding with the same action
you may actually be reinforcing that this is an acceptable behavior,
or confusing him entirely.
Don't assume that your child is willfully misbehaving. The ways
that you'll treat these behaviors in an older child, who understands
that biting is wrong, will be different than how you will approach
this with a toddler.
Don't yell at your toddler. This will do nothing more than scare
her; it won't teach her anything about what she's just done.
to do about biting
When you understand that your child's actions are normal, and that
they aren't intentional misbehavior, you will be able to take the
right steps to teach her how to communicate her anger and frustration.
This takes time, and she'll need more than one lesson. Here's how
to teach your child not to bite:
Watch and intercept
As you become familiar with your toddler's actions, you may be able
to stop a bite even before it even occurs. If you see that your
child is getting frustrated or angry - perhaps in the middle of
a tussle over a toy - step in and redirect her attention to something
Immediately after your toddler bites another child, look her in
the eye and tell her in one or two short sentences what you want
her to know, such as, "Biting hurts. We don't bite. Give Emmy
a hug now. That will make her feel better." Then, give your
child a few hints on how she should handle her frustration next
time; "If you want a toy, you can ask for it or come to Mommy
Avoid playful biting
Nibbling your little one's toes or playfully nipping his fingers
sends a mixed message to your child. A little one won't understand
when biting another person is okay and when it's not, nor is she
able to judge the pressure she's putting into the bite. As she gets
a little older, she will start to understand that some things can
be done carefully and gently in play, but not in anger. This takes
a little more maturity to understand more than you can expect your
toddler to have at her young age.
Give more attention to the injured child
Typically, we put all our energy into correcting the biter's actions
and we don't give the child who was bitten any consolation. Soothing
the child who was bitten can show your child that his actions caused
another child fear or pain. You can even encourage your child to
help sooth his friend.
The repeat offender
If you've gone though the above steps, and then your child bites
again, you can respond with a little more intensity. If you catch
him in the act, immediately go to him. Take him by the shoulders,
look him in the eye, and firmly announce, "No biting: time-out."
Direct him to a chair and have him sit for a minute or two. It doesn't
take very long for your message to sink in. (And, with a toddler,
a longer time-out can dilute the message as he may actually forget
why he's sitting there!)
you miss the action, but are told about it later, you can have a
talk with your child about what happened. Limit yourself to a few
brief, specific comments, as a lengthy lecture is almost never effective.
A child who bites a playmate more than once may need more guidance
on how to handle frustration and anger. Reading toddler books on
the topic, role-playing, and demonstration of appropriate actions
can all help your child learn how to respond to his own emotions
in socially appropriate ways.
Although the risk of injury from a toddler's bite is small, it's
good to know what to do in case of a bite that breaks through the
o Calm and reassure the child who was bitten.
o Wash your hands with soap and water.
o Wash the wound with mild soap and water.
o Cover the injury with a bandage.
o If the bite is actively bleeding, control the bleeding by applying
direct pressure with a clean, dry cloth.
o Call your pediatrician for advice.
Pantley is the author of "Gentle Baby Care" and "The
No-Cry Sleep Solution." This article is a copyrighted excerpt
from "Gentle Toddler Care" (McGraw-Hill, 2006). For more
information, visit www.pantley.com/elizabeth