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The Informed Parent

The Toddler Who Bites

by Louis P. Theriot, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Mar. 01, 1997

A commonly asked question is what to do about the 18-24 month old who bites. This leads to much frustration and concern on the part of the parents who want to know if their child is behaving normally. First of all, biting is a very common occurrence in toddlers, so the parents must rest assured that they are not alone. Most children learn to bite by doing it in a playful manner at around one year of age when mouthing and teething are normal behaviors. All too often however, family or friends think this is cute or funny. They can reinforce this behavior by laughing or making light if it. Soon the child will see this behavior as a real attention getter.

At around 18-24 months of age, when the child's communication skills are marginal at best, biting may serve as a primitive form of communicating...particularly when they are mad or frustrated. These children cannot express themselves verbally as fast as they would like. You see this when another child swipes a toy, or he is trying to plead his case with mom as to why he should NOT have to stop playing. They merely REACT to the situation.

After 3 years of age, biting may very well be a deliberate act of aggression or self-defense. Dealing with children requires consistency on the part of the parents at all times. It does no good if mom works hard all day to modify a child's behavior, and dad comes home from work and down plays the discipline. A mere light-hearted snicker at the wrong time can undermine all the hard efforts of the day. It doesn't take long for a child to learn to play one parent against the other.

Here are some parental guidelines for dealing with the "snapping" toddler. Set the ground rules at an early age. Let the child know that we DO NOT bite people! He may not fully understand the reasons why it is not acceptable to bite, but he will soon realize that the behavior will lead to certain "consequences". A useful method to deal with this is to place him in time out. Interrupt the biting with a stern NO! Then place him in a crib or playpen for a prescribed amount of time. He is not to get out of time out until his time has been served no matter how much crying and pleading he does. Believe me, after just a couple of these experiences and he will get the message.

For older children, a good "time out" place is a chair in the corner of the room. An egg timer is a good way to mark out the "detention". What is critical however, is that the parents are consistent and swift and try not to make concessions.

If your child bites someone, do not laugh or re-tell the story to another person in a joking manner no matter how funny it might have actually been. You often hear people say to bite the child back so they know how it feels. You can see the illogic here by looking at this scenario through the eyes of a child. He/she bites someone, gets scolded by mom, lectured to about the social impropriety of biting...then gets munched on by mom herself. Where is the consistency here?

Parents must talk it over and be comfortable with their approach so that when a situation does arise, they act on a united front in a swift and consistent manner. They must be supportive of each other. Surprisingly, the child will thrive with this approach. The boundaries are well established and it will make his little world a much happier and safer place.

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