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Toddler Biting

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.
Stephanie

Stephanie,
Most babies experiment with biting in an exploratory fashion, 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.

However, some little ones go through a biting phase. They are not able to express themselves with words very well yet, so anger and frustration often are expressed by biting. They also sometimes bite to provoke a reaction, which I would see as a plea for connection.

If you get the sense that your little one might be about to bite, it is best to prevent the bite entirely by holding her away from you and saying "You are MAD but no biting!" Research has shown that simply acknowledging the feelings of pre-verbal little ones this way can not only prevent biting, it can actually end tantrums.

If she does bite you,  let her know that it HURT! If you are holding her, put her down. Say "OUCH, that HURT!" very loudly, as you focus on where you were bitten. This is likely to startle her out of her own anger, and will probably alarm her to the point of tears. You can then pick her up and comfort her, and say "It's ok, Mommy is ok now, but Biting Hurts. You were mad, weren't you? You can tell me MAD!  But no biting. Ok?"

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.

or

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."
Dr. Laura

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

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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.

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!

But in this case, Stephanie's daughter she has just begun this behavior and seems to be "testing" her mom. Let's see how it works!

Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 16-Sep-2009 03:11 PM
I am having a similar challenge with my 18 month old. He is in a daycare and has bitten his classmates several times now. I believe it's because he is getting teeth in and is either frustrated or in pain or both. I don't believe his intentions are to hurt- but nonetheless it is difficult to know how to fix it, especially when I'm not the one there to discipline him. (I wish I was! Being a working mom was not my first choice!) He doesn;t do it at home because he knows it's not okay to bite mommy or daddy, but it seems that the redirection that they use at daycare hasn't really sunk in with him and he continues to bite. I've permitted them to give him his pacifier during his tired or more painful times, but haven't tried a teether because I am afraid a. it'll get lost and b. other kids will take it from it and chew on it and he'll get angry and bite again! He's a pretty mild mannered little kid and when he's happy and painfree he doesn't react like that. Anyone have ideas?

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