Why do they do that? Biting.

Why do they do that? Biting.

Among the more alarming behaviors that toddlers exhibit is biting. Most kids have bitten someone at some point -- probably you. But it feels like such an aggressive act that we usually don’t know how to respond properly. Our first instinct might actually be to bite back (or hit or scream, etc.). Being bitten HURTS!  Here are 3 things you should know about why biting happens and 3 tips to deal with it.

It’s communication

Biting is communication (because all behavior, especially the “bad” behavior, is communication). It can mean: “No, I REALLY don’t want to do this thing you are forcing me to do”; “stop doing that annoying thing you’re doing”; or “You scared me and I need to defend myself”. Among other things. If you can figure out the hidden message, you’ll be ahead of the game.

It’s an act of last resort

Biting is an act of last resort for your child. If they could have mustered “using their words” they WOULD HAVE - things would have been so much easier for them! But, “using their words” either didn’t work or they couldn’t find their words to begin with. They needed a quick, effective, achievable strategy, and they sure found it. The fact that biting is socially unacceptable was irrelevant to your child at the time that they were settling on a strategy.

Maybe it’s sensory based

Sometimes biting happens because of an underlying sensory reason. We get a lot of sensory input from our joints. Sensory input makes us feel good -- like when we get a massage or jump on a trampoline: the pressure to our joints triggers relaxation. Well, our jaw is a joint. So one of the ways we get sensory input is through the jaw. It’s why people like to chew gum (and pens, fingernails, etc.). If you think your child is biting because of an underlying sensory issue, try replacing the biting of people with a chewable (gum, chew toy - lots on amazon) or talk to an occupational therapist.

Ok, fine, you say. But what to do about biting? Here are three ways to deal.

Prevent the bite

The best way to deal with biting is to prevent it from happening. (If you just said, “duh”, stay with me for a second.) Just like we talked about in a previous video on throwing, little kids are not super subtle about their intentions. You can usually see things brewing a few minutes or seconds before they happen. And just like other “annoying” behaviors, if we can stop biting from happening, we don’t have to punish anyone for doing it.

But they meant to bite! They planned on hurting me!


And you meant to tell your mother in law to shut up the other day and you didn’t, did you? You sometimes wish you could scream at your partner, but you don’t (usually), right? Any consequences for intending to do something and then NOT doing it? Nope.

We have the same internal impulses as our toddlers when we are angry or frustrated. The only difference is that we have learned (in general) to control our external behavior and channel it into something more “appropriate”. Our kids haven’t learned that yet: it’s our job to teach them.

So think about this: if you see that your child is about to bite someone and you let it happen, it might actually be your fault… ! oops.

If it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. Prevention is the best cure.

Keep it short.

If you (the adult) do get bitten, you have two choices, but they should both be short.

  1. Try not to react. I know this sounds ridiculous. But really. The less reaction you show, the less attention you give to the bite, the less likely your child is to do it again. Saying “ouch” or “that hurts” or any of those things usually doesn’t work, and here’s why. If your child is biting, it’s because they are already OUT of the “learning zone”. They are so frustrated or angry that they are in survival mode. Nobody learns in survival mode. In fact, your child probably can’t understand what you’re saying when they’re in survival mode. Save your breath. Put yourself in a “time out” if you need to breathe through the pain and then redirect and move on.

  2. Create a strong but very brief “punishment”. Here’s the one I used with my kids: I said, “There’s no biting!” in a loud and forceful and mean voice, right in their faces. And then I separated from them for about 10 seconds (put them down, walked away). BUT ONLY FOR 10 SECONDS, after which I picked them back up, calmed them down and we went back to whatever it was we were doing.

Tend to the victim

If your child is the Biter, this can be really triggering for some parents. Just remember that biting is a child’s communication of last resort and have some sympathy for your little person. He or she is probably as mortified by what they’ve done as you are. Allow them to atone by helping you tend to the victim and then redirect and move on.

Biting feels like a big deal and somehow separate from other toddler behaviors. And it does carry some health risks (mostly when skin is broken). But, it’s usually just a sign of some big feelings that got let out in an immature way. We can forgive our little ones for that. And teach them how to do it better next time.

If you want more strategies for how to handle difficult-to-understand toddler behavior, consider my Toddler Talk Online course for parents.

All my best,