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It’s a common scenario: an angry toddler acts out with a firm bite. It can be a parent, an authority figure such a daycare worker or caregiver, or even another child. If you’re the parent of a toddler, you know how embarrassing it can be, and in some daycares and preschools, toddlers can even be removed for biting.

Knowing why toddlers bite is the first step to controlling this behavior. In general, toddlers bite because they are frustrated and it can be a totally normal response, along with crying and, for many toddlers, occasionally hitting. However, biting is not acceptable, so it’s up to parents to provide their toddlers with alternative ways to properly express frustration and anger.

When a child bites, it’s important to take action quickly. Here’s what to do:

  • As soon as possible after the actual biting, explain that biting is not okay (putting the child in a brief time-out or at least separating from the situation may help).
  • Check on the person who was bitten. Avoid calling the person “victim” or giving too much attention and consolation to the one bitten, while ignoring your toddler or calling your child names like bully or biter. This will inadvertently reinforce the “I am bad” mentality in your child and may increase the likelihood of future negative attention seeking behaviors.
  • Once everyone has calmed down, speak with your toddler about the incident. It helps to figure out if your toddler was very excited or overstimulated, angry, looking for attention, or another reason that may lead to biting. It does not necessarily mean that your toddler was angry when they bit.

Preventing biting 

It’s always a good idea to “catch” your child behaving well. When your child is angry or frustrated and doesn’t resort to biting, praise their behavior and reinforce ways they can safely express their emotions.

Whatever you do, don’t bite your child “back” to show that it hurts. Child psychologists agree this is not a helpful strategy. In fact, biting, spanking, or hitting a child sends the message that it’s okay to use physical force to deal with anger. You should also avoid telling your child they are “bad” or labeling the child as a biter.

Usually, these steps will help put an end to biting—but it won’t happen overnight. While biting is a normal stage of development, if your child is still biting others after the age of three, you may want to bring it up with your pediatrician.

Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020

Takeaways

  • Toddlers often bite because they don’t have the vocabulary or skills to express their anger verbally.
  • When a child bites, it’s important to correct the behavior immediately, without spanking or using physical force.
  • Praising a child when they don’t bite can help prevent future problems.
  • If your child doesn’t grow out of biting by 3 years old, a doctor may be able to help additional strategies.

References

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Biting.
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Children who bite.
  3. Healthy Children. Aggressive Behavior.
  4. Healthy Children. How to Respond with Effective Discipline.
  5. Healthy Children. How to Encourage Good Behavior.

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