Biting in Toddlerhood - Why it Happens and How to Handle it
By Katelyn Boggs
Toddlers are very emotional creatures - their emotions can swing from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows very rapidly. Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes around a young child knows this to be true! Unfortunately, those strong emotions can lead to some intense reactions, one of which is biting.
Biting is a common behavioral struggle that nearly all children will face at some point in their childhood. It occurs most often during the toddler years but can begin to appear in infancy (usually around eight to nine months). This behavior typically slows at some point when a child is two years old but can resurface again between three and four years of age. Typically, it is not seen much beyond the age of three or four. While this behavior is extremely triggering for most adults, you may find it does not seem to be that big of a deal to your child. They may cry out in pain when it occurs but usually are very quickly able to move on and may not even remember it happened.
This behavior is very often the result of extremely strong emotions, both positive as well as negative. Rarely is biting a conscious choice for a child; it is more likely to be reflexive (like a sneeze or a yawn). This behavior can happen for all kinds of reasons – anger, frustration, love, hunger, or teething pain to name a few. It can occur as seemingly aggressive, or as a defensive response to a real or perceived threat. It could also happen for no apparent reason at all. For example, a toddler may bite as a delayed response to stress that happened earlier. Perhaps something upsetting occurred and the child did not have the time or the space to express the emotions related to that event. Later, the next time something upsetting happens, the child may bite whatever or whoever is nearest to them to relieve the pent-up stress from unexpressed emotions.
Since biting is a “contagious” behavior – meaning that it can “spread” throughout a group of children, it is crucial for the adults around to remain calm (or unruffled as Janet Lansbury calls it). Children naturally crave attention and connection, and if a toddler learns, even inadvertently, that biting is a fantastic way to capture the attention of everyone in the room, they may bite more, or others who weren’t biting may begin to bite in order to gain the adult’s attention. Something else that is fascinating to a young child is when their actions result in a big, exciting reaction from another person. If biting someone results in a loud cry of “ouch!!” or causes an adult to get flustered, a toddler (being a tiny scientist by nature) may repeat their experiment to see if the same result occurs a second, or third, or fourth, or any number of times.
For this reason, the guides here at YPM are coached in and practice how to respond to biting in a careful, intentionally unemotional way. As too much attention can encourage this behavior to continue, this is a very important skill not just for Montessori guides to learn, but any adult who interacts with toddlers. The first thing we recommend to all staff and families is to read the book No Bad Kids by the aforementioned Janet Lansbury. This book is full of practical advice on how to respectfully approach various common discipline struggles, such as biting, hitting, whining, sibling squabbles, food struggles, and more. The following is a summary of a few helpful tips for dealing with a child who is biting, inspired by Ms. Lansbury:
Toddlers cannot process a lot of language at once. Their brains will begin to zone out after more than a sentence or two. Expectations need to be calmly and succinctly stated in as few words as possible.
Use an open hand to calmly block an attempt at biting, if possible, with the words, “I can’t let you bite. Biting hurts.”
“Be nice” is a very vague concept, as is “that’s not nice”. Concrete examples of what the child should be doing tend to be understood more easily. For example, saying “Be gentle, please” and then demonstrating what gentleness looks like may be more effective.
Use sportscasting to acknowledge feelings and navigate conflict as it happens. This may sound something like, “He had the ball. You wanted the ball. He didn’t give it to you. You felt angry and bit him. It’s frustrating I know, but I can’t let you bite. Biting hurts.”
At Yadkin Path, the advice given to families is to prepare for your child to be bitten at least once during their time with us. This developmentally appropriate behavior will occur, no matter how much we may wish it would not. When a child is bitten in our care, the following steps are taken; first, the child who is bitten will be comforted. Initially the guides will not give any attention to the child who bites, so as not to encourage the behavior. The guide will provide scripts for both children involved, depending on each child’s expressive language ability, and will model safe, appropriate, healthy ways to express emotions and handle conflict. An incident report will be written for the child who is bitten, when a mark is left. Reports are not written just for attempted bites that were prevented. The family of a child who has bitten is not typically notified, unless the biting escalates or becomes a frequent or recurring issue. The reason for this is because very young children need guidance that is immediate and relevant. Giving a 17 month old a lecture about why biting is unacceptable 5 hours after the event has occurred is not effective. Children need to be respectfully redirected in the moment, and certainly do not need to be punished hours after the fact. Discussions need to occur calmly, stating only the facts, and given without shame. Rest assured that appropriate discipline and guidance occurs in the classroom in the moment by our staff. Consistency between home and school in dealing with this behavior will help to prevent the occasional bite from spiraling into a recurring issue.
For further reading, see the articles linked below: