Hello Dr. Laura,
Thank you in advance for any help or support you can offer.
My little girl is 19 months old and just recently started biting both my husband and me. I'm not sure where this is coming from. She has never seen other children bite and I don't believe we have ever pretended to bite her. I assume she is just testing her boundaries, but I'm not sure how to deal with it. I want to handle it well so that it doesn't continue or even get worse. I care for her full time, so there are no daycare concerns.
Just in case you need a little more info, she has never broken skin so the bites are not really hard. She has done it in anger once or twice and randomly a couple other times. This just started about a week ago. She is generally a sweet child although she is dealing with learning to manage frustration/anger right now.
Most babies experiment with biting in an exploratory fashion, to see what happens, for instance while nursing or snuggling. When they learn that the parent's response is "OUCH!" they generally have no further need to explore that path.
Sometimes, little ones will bite in an attempt to provoke a reaction, which I would see as a plea for connection.
But most commonly, toddlers bite because they are angry or frustrated, and don't yet have the words to express it. It sounds like that is what is going on with your daughter. If you can give her alternative ways to express herself, she won't need to bite.
If you can, prevention is always the best strategy. If you get the sense that your little one might be about to bite, hold her away from you and saying "You are MAD but no biting! Biting hurts." Research has shown that simply acknowledging the feelings of pre-verbal little ones can not only prevent biting, it can actually end tantrums. Given that receptive language is many months ahead of expressive language, she will probably understand you.
If she does bite you, let her know that it HURT! Most likely, you will be startled, and she'll see your automatic startled, pained response and hear you say a loud "OUCH, that HURT!" Focus on the place where you were bitten and give yourself a moment to recover, so you can actually empathize, rather than attacking. Then, acknowledge what she's trying to tell you: "You are mad! You can tell me MAD! But no biting. Biting hurts. OUCH!"
Most kids will stop biting after this. If she doesn't, then either:
a. She is biting to provoke your reaction, which I would see as a plea for connection, and respond to by showering her with attention BEFORE she bites, or during the times when she usually bites, such as if she bites while nursing so that you will look at her.
b. She may have a great deal of tension that she is trying to express. In that case, I would advise you to be very aware of preventing the biting as described above. Try to avoid being bitten, when you can see it coming, and always respond by stopping her. But instead of being stern, along with setting the limit, try a kind voice, one that helps her feel safe enough to get in touch with whatever feelings are beneath her biting. I suspect that if you set a clear, kind limit, looking into her eyes, she will burst into tears. Tell her "That's ok, Sweetie, cry as much as you want, I am right here" and hold her. If despite your best efforts, she does bite you, look her in the eye and say "OUCH, you hurt me! You are mad! You can show me you're mad, but no biting." Usually at that point your child will begin crying. A good cry will help her let those feelings out, and she won't need to bite any more.
It is also possible that she'll start giggling instead. Most parents get angry when their child starts laughing after biting, but it is just a way of letting off the tension and upset that caused the bite. Let her laugh as much as she can. Crying may follow. In any case, after all these feelings are out, cuddle your little one and say "You needed to show me how you were feeling. You can show me by making faces. (Make an angry face here, then smile so she doesn't think you're serious.) But we don't bite."
It also often works to give little biters a teether and tell them "Teethers are for biting, we never bite people."
My son went through a biting phase too. I was told that if I reacted strongly he would just bite more, to get a reaction. You know, the old idea of not rewarding misbehavior by attending to it. So i would just say "We don't bite." But it took him a while to outgrow it.
Dr. Laura, I see you are giving different advice. Aren't you worried about reinforcing the biting by reacting to it? -- Debra
I know the advice usually given to parents is just what you described. But I also hear from parents that ignoring the biting doesn't stop the biting for a long time, if at all.
When a little one acts aggressively towards us, unless it is already a habit, usually they are testing us. In that case, I think it is a mistake to ignore it, or even act calm and casual. Instead, I want to give her the message that she is hurting me, and hurting our relationship. After all, they are looking to us to show them how relationships work. So I react honestly: IT HURTS! Usually, that stops the behavior immediately.
But we also need to acknowledge our child's feelings. If our toddler is biting is to express frustration or anger, that's legitimate. We don't want to ignore it. So we just need to redirect that expression, and let them know we are there to listen to all their feelings.
And if the toddler is biting because she is signaling us that she needs to cry, we can facilitate that best by noticing, not by ignoring!