Biting in children is a sign of normal social experimentation

I love to pick up my two year old from daycare. Her language is becoming increasingly complex with small sentences, lots of gesturing and expression. When I ask how school was, she says, “Miss you. I crying.” Or, “I running fast with friends.” Or sometimes a confident, “good,” with a head nod.

Yesterday, she said, “friend, bite me.”

Her very kind teacher confirmed the event, and asked my daughter to show me the mark. No broken skin. No big deal. I reassured the teacher. I signed the incident form.

My daughter told me, “Miss Jean hold me and wash it. Tommy time out.”

I continue to marvel at the calm and skill of good daycare teachers. Miss Jean provided the proper hygiene, comfort, and discipline without yelling or blaming. I did not even ask what lead up to the incident because it did not matter. Asking my daughter why Tommy bit her would serve no purpose. Biting is never justified, and how can she speculate about what he was thinking.

I wanted her to learn forgiveness. I said, “You bite mommy and daddy sometimes. I bet he said sorry. You are OK. He’ll use his words next time.”  She nodded yes.

When infants mouth objects, we think nothing of it. Parents know it is normal for children to put things in their mouths. Most children start this oral behavior around 4 months of age and stop anywhere from 9 to 18 months with the behavior becoming less frequent as they learn more about the world through other methods. Biting other children or adults begins when chewing on other objects slows. Around this same time children are increasingly aware of social behaviors and are both curious and a little anxious about interacting with other people.

Biting is very natural and all children around the age of 12 months begin to experiment with biting Mom or Dad. Then they might try biting siblings or friends. The behavior peaks around 24 months and then declines. Three year old children rarely bite because they have gained social competence and the language skills to mediate frustration.

Please know that all children bite. No matter how you handle the behavior, your child will outgrow it by three years old. How you react may affect how quickly the behavior stops.

To nip it in the bud

  • A simple, “biting hurts” will do. Nobody should be called bad. No shouting.
  • Give affection and attention to the child that was bitten.
  • Briefly ignore the biter. Time out may not be necessary as ignoring the child sends a clear message that biting is an antisocial behavior.
  • Let the biter say sorry or hug the person he has hurt.
  • Anticipate biting and offer distraction or offer words that the child can use instead.
  • If the skin is broken, see your doctor about the need for antibiotics or a tetanus shot. Usually soap, lots of water, and maybe a cool compress are all you need.
  • Choose a daycare with good staffing ratios, at least one adult to four children for toddlers. A quality provider engages the children, minimizes boredom, recognizes fatigue and understands that biting happens.

Biting is almost never a sign of abnormal development in an otherwise normal child. My autistic child never bit anyone, but my five year old used to and my two year old still does.

Biting is a sign of normal social experimentation. I just hope I can keep that in mind when my daughter comes home with her first hickey.

“dr_som” is a pediatrician who blogs at Pensive Pediatrician.

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  • http://natickpediatrics.net Rob Lindeman

    “biting hurts”

    Reasons don’t matter to toddlers: they only need to be told what’s okay and what’s not okay to do. How many toddlers have you seen stop, stare you in the eye and say “My God, you’re right! Biting DOES hurt!”

    Otherwise a thoughtful piece. Thank you for the contribution.

  • AJ

    Ignoring the biter is powerful, and important. This is exactly how I train puppies not to bite: say “ow, no”, then turn away and ignore. Small children can act like animals. There’s no reason this approach wouldn’t work with them, too.

  • mightbeatranny

    i have 3 kids. 2 bite others, 1 was the bite-ee. much eaiser to be mom of the bite-ee, lol.

  • gzuckier

    Some kids bite, some don’t. Seems to be just random. They pretty much all grow out of it pretty quickly; you seldom see an adult who bites you. (insert your own Mike Tyson joke here)

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