Articles

Biting

What to do when kids use their teeth for more than eating. This article features three different, real life scenarios of PSP member experiences, as well as various advice from over the years.

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Scenario 1:

From the parent of a biter! As a PSP member writes:

"My 21-month-old son has become THAT kid -- the one that bites all the kids at day care. I was told he bit four kids today. He's generally very happy and social, not particularly aggressive. (He's also the smallest kid in his day care, and I wonder if that has something to do with it -- it's a way he can assert some power.) I'm wondering what I can do to nip this in the bud. Problem is it doesn't happen at home much. It did once this weekend (he bit his big sister and then Daddy) and we gave him a stern no and took him away from what he was doing. I feel like we need a more stern response -- maybe more structured time outs, but is he too young? And whatever I do at home, how much will it make an impact when the incidents are usually at day care?"

 

Replies:

 

"There was a kid in our playgroup who bit, and after a few bad incidents with crying kids and screamy time outs creating bad feelings all around, we all agreed a different tactic was needed. The next time he bit another kid, EVERYONE - all the adults, even the biter's mother - rushed to console and soothe and fuss over the victim, and NO ONE gave any attention whatsoever to the biter. I remember he was standing all alone, looking baffled. When the victim was calm and ready to continue play, the biter was included as if nothing had happened. He got NO attention, positive or negative, for his behavior -- but his actions bestowed a wealth of attention on the other kids. He honestly didn't try it again in that group.
I don't know if this would work in any other situation.
(I'm also remembering one boy in our group who was a little wild, and all the parents calling his name with instructions to stop throwing things, to calm down ... except the grandpa in our group, who called urgently to his own grandson, instead: "Get away! That kid is acting crazy! Get away from him!" and I remember thinking in real life, for example if someone on your subway car starts acting wild, that's really what you would do: you'd get away, not try to calm down the wild one.) Enjoy these golden years."

 

 "If your son likes books, he may enjoy reading Teeth are Not for Biting."

 

Scenario 2:

 Another biter! As another PSP member similarly asks,

 

"Our 19 month old daughter has started biting and pinching and we are looking for feedback on how to stop it. She's a very sweet, playful girl, but it's becoming more frequent that in the midst of playing she will bite. Many times she will bite, say ouch and then kiss us. She will pinch us usually when we are doing a calm activity like reading to her or singing to her, and many times, she will pinch and say ouch at the same time. We have been trying time outs, but find it hard to give her a time out when we are outside and there is no place to put her. She had only been biting us, but yesterday she bit her cousin pretty hard. We would love to hear your advice on any strategies we should try to get her to stop biting as soon as possible. Thank you!"

 

Replies:

 

"All I can really say is that I have been through that and it is important to nip it in the bud as early as possible. There is a book called, "Teeth are not for biting" that can help. I wish that I had owned this book earlier. Ideally, you stop her before she bites and make it known that it is not okay and help her learn to take out her frustration in other ways (like using her words). For my daughter it was always about sharing her toys, or her perceived toys. I thought that her biting days were over and then she did it again 4 days in a row at school (when I was not present) at the age of 3. That made me wish that I had been more severe with her earlier on (she first bit a peer, never me, at the age of 16 months). Timeouts can be done in the stroller turned away from the fun she was having if you are out and about. I am still so embarrassed that my kid is the biter. There seems to be one in every group. While it is developmentally normal, it is your responsibility to help her learn to stop. Ideally, you will watch her like a hawk, catch her in the act before she has actually bitten, help her learn to get what she wants in other ways that are acceptable, and keep explaining to her that teeth are not for biting and that "Ouch, biting hurts."
I also found that my daughter is more likely to bite when she is tired or hungry or if there is a life change. My daughter's most recent bout with biting came in the first two weeks that public school was out and my husband who was a teacher was home in the mornings (a big change from the whole rest of the school year).
Good luck to you.
Sincerely,
Mom to a 3-year-old who has bitten one time in the last 3 weeks and who received such a severe timeout that I am crossing my fingers that it was the last time."

 

"I hear your pain, as my 2.5-year-old has just seemed to emerge from a LONG (1 year) biting phase. In addition to discouraging the biting of people and helpin her express herself in othwer ways, one suggestion I have heard (albeit too late for our purposes) is to attach a biting toy to your child's person, so that if she has an uncontrollable urge to bite she knows that she has something she can bite. One difficulty I had is that our son seemed to bite for different reasons (boredom, anger, frustration, exuberant excitement, self defense) and a single response to all situations did not feel quite right. It has been a long and frustrating road."

 

"I know it's less common for girls, but my five-year-old was an intractable biter from about 16 months until she finished her twos program, so I guess she was almost three...
We read Teeth Are Not For Biting every night for a while. She tried the glass of cold water. I had her carry a toothbrush to bite when she felt like she had to bite something. She bit every child in her class. She bit her sister, her babysitter, me, my husband, and anyone who visited our house despite many, many attempts to discourage it.
What finally worked for us, was telling her she could bite anyone who gave her permission. She had to ask first, and if the answer was yes, then she could go ahead, but if the answer was no, then she absolutely, under no circumstance, for any reason was permitted to bite.
To this day, I hear her every morning ask her sister, who is almost eight, if she can bite her. Her sister says no. She throws her a stuffed animal, she bites the stuffed animal. Her sister screams as though she's being bitten, they both laugh hilariously, and no biting happens. She once asked her sitter if she could bite his butt, which was somewhat uncool, but much better than if she had simply charged at him with teeth bared. It's my observation that around two and a half children begin to love rules, and they follow rules when they are unequivocal. This worked for us. I don't know that it would work for everyone, but it's worth a try."

 

Scenario 3: Child repeatedly bit and hit at daycare

And from the perspective of a bitee, this question was posed to the group:

 

We need your collective wisdom. Our two year old has been bitten (leaving marks of full rows of upper and lower teeth and black and blue) and hit (leaving hand marks) numerous times (in unprovoked attacks by the same older child at daycare (including right in front of his own parents). This kid is very verbal and has the words to express himself in more productive way. His parents think he can do no wrong and immediately ask what our child did to cause this. When the daycare director has told them it was unprovoked in yet another incident, the parents say nothing, don't hold their child accountable in any way nor do they make him apologize. The daycare workers have tried to address the behavior with the child directly but the child refuses to apologize since there is no reinforcement of the discipline/consequences at home. The director of the program admits she's at a loss since the parents won't do anything to change the behavior. We are no longer comfortable dropping our child off knowing that he may be hurt. We realize toddlers are imperfect creatures and even our own darling is capable of lashing out during a tantrum. However, we feel the parents should ultimately be responsible for addressing and curbing the behavior. We have heard that some schools have rules where after multiple offenses the child is asked to leave the school. How do we handle this? Do we speak to the parents directly? Ask for a meeting mediated by the school's director? We really like the school and their loving attitude toward each child but what is their responsibility to protect each child? We'd like to hear your thoughts."

 

"My son was in a daycare with a child--they were about two at the time--who repeatedly got suddenly angry and bit the other children, often breaking skin and causing dark purple bruises. After about four or five different biting occasions, the center--at the behest of at least two families—asked the biter's parent to remove their son and they did. We all felt awful--they were nice people, but were lost in terms of helping direct their child's behavior. I know they felt that the daycare wasn't helping them enough, though if that was justified, I'm not sure.
Do you know if other families share your experiences/views? There is power in numbers when it comes to getting daycares to take action. If it's just your child getting the brunt of the bites and hits, you are in a tougher spot. I do think the daycare director needs to be tougher with them and make it clear if the behavior doesn't change they will have to leave."

 

I've been on both sides of this  - my older one, my daughter, was always the bitten one, and then my younger one, my son, was the bitter.  Fortunately, his biting phase was short-lived.  (I'll use biting as short hand for biting and hitting.)
I'm a bit surprised you know which kid is the aggressor and that the day care center is discussing the other parents with you.  Often day care will not to let either parent know who the other kid was (regardless of who is the bitter or bitee) because understandably, the day care center doesn't want parents taking it upon themselves to confront a biter's parent. Flowing partly from that, I don't think that you as the parent should have to take any action - it is really the job of the day care center to address this.
I don't agree with a fixed rule like three strikes and your out.  While no one wants their kids to be bitten, for some kids, biting other kids is a normal part of development, and a kid who's going through that phase shouldn't be marginalized, for just a temporary phase of biting, in and of itself.  (And I felt this way before my son when my daughter was on the bittee end.)
That being said, I do think the parents need to take some action - recognize and convey the message to their kid that it's not proper behavior.  The best advice I read was to convey the message clearly but matter-of-factly that it's not proper and then move on quickly (so as not to give reinforcement through a lot of attention).  However, if the parents refuse to express to their kid in any form that biting isn't proper, then the day care center should ask them to leave.  If a kid's behavior is problematic and the parents will do nothing to help stop it, then the day care shouldn't act powerless.
If I were you, I'd ask the day care when and if they plan to take any action, given the parents laissez-faire attitude.  (How long has this been going on and how many times?  To me that makes a difference.)  And if the day care program dooesn't show any inclination to do something sooner or later, I'd question them on why not, not in an accusatory way, but rather with the aim of understanding their thinking and depending on their response suggesting diplomatically that they should do something.  (You shouldn't be forced out of the day care program because of this.)."

 

"honestly i'm a parent that believes hitting and biting as a young toddler is a normal developmental thing that happens to most of them. yes it totally sucks for the kid that gets hit and bitten but the stage passes with repeated correction and positive reinforcement by all caregivers involved.  when my daughter was 2 she often did this at her school. others also did it to her. she was the youngest in the class and the teachers said it was mostly triggered b/c the other kids tried to push her around but she wouldn't stand for it.
as she became the oldest in the class, other younger kids would bite her but as she was nearly 3 and they were in their young 2s (a huge difference by the way), she would understand not to retaliate and bite back, she would use words and get the teacher's attention. and i definitely didn't hold it against the other parents.
as a previous poster said, none of the teachers would say who the biter or bitee was but i knew b/c my daughter was vocal and communicative about it and we'd talk about it. it is up to the parents, but pls realize it does take time. just like getting kids to share.
i think back and feel mostly annoyed at the other parents that didn't accept this. there was a time where one kid initiated biting against my daughter every other day for a couple of weeks. it was fine and i talked about it with my daughter that it was important for her not to bite back. she didn't. but then the following week my daughter initiated the biting and the parent went out of their way to say my daughter had to move classes or be thrown out of the school b/c it was unacceptable in their eyes. i know this b/c the school staff pulled me aside and talked to me about it, as if it was somehow my fault as i was some sort of deviant parent. i reassured them that was not the case and my daughter knows how to behave it's a matter of reinforcing good behavior and not rewarding the bad behavior with attention. they agreed with me that the teachers would keep an extra eye on those two and not give the biter any attention and decided to go back to the other parent that the kids would continue to stay in the same class. i was really quite offended b/c their kid had just been the culprit and my daughter had the same black and blue bruises every other day - they certainly knew it as the center calls both parents.
i know these things make us feel helpless as parents. but forcing another toddler to leave a daycare is a little extreme. the kids get all kind of scrapes and bruises, and this is just one of them. yes, inflicted by their peers, but at this age it's normal in my eyes as i've seen firsthand just last year. other small 2 year olds bit my nearly 3 year old but she understood by then to use her words. but i don't think any 2 year old is going to have complete control of his or her urges and when they're so inclined, they may and will bite. to expect a 3 or 4 year old not to bite is a completely different story. but from 1-2.5, they're still babies, just stronger ones trying to manage their emotions which are sometimes too big for their little selves. i highly recommend the emotional life of the toddler. i did what i could control (along with the caregivers with increased awareness) which was talk and discuss why biting is not good (which was often tied into sharing oddly enough), how it hurts others, and how retaliation to biting is not OK and if she gets bitten, how she can get her aggression out in other ways. i know it is hard though so i definitely feel your pain - best of luck!"

 

"Wow, that's awful! I don't feel like it is your responsibility to speak to the parents nor do I think this would be productive. My 2 cents is the director needs to resolve this issue. There is no place for hitting nor biting and my feeling would be three strikes and you're out. If there were other behavioral issues/transitions the child was going through that the parents were addressing I would be much more forgiving. You have to trust the daycare to protect your child. They are failing to do that. They need to be accountable for providing a safe environment.Are other children being hit/bitten or just your child?"

 

"My friend's daughter was a biter, and after several warnings the parents were called and asked to bring their daughter home. I thought that was a reasonable response since they were unable to curb the biting.good luck!"

 

"This is SO unacceptable. That child should be asked to leave or if he/she doesn’t...maybe you should find another daycare. How do the other parents feel?"

 

"Wow, that is terrible – I am so sorry this is happening to you and your child! Having seen my son through almost 4 years of daycare, relatively happily although not without an occasional complaint about another kid being mean to him, this seems really off the charts in terms of what a daycare director ought to permit. Unfortunately it sounds like, if they can’t/won’t control this, you may not be able to stay with this daycare, so I would start by trying to make a backup plan of some sort or at least work out what that plan could be (one thing to consider is that daycare spots turn over in the summer as the oldest kids start leaving for pre-K, so you’re approaching the best time of year to find a new place and also the point when your current place may be most nervous about losing kids).
Then, in your place I think I would immediately talk to the daycare director, explain how serious you think this is (it sounds like they either aren’t quite seeing that or are refusing to acknowledge it or hoping it will “just go away”) and explain that if this continues you will have to withdraw your child, and you will expect your deposit back (I’d be tempted to threaten them with a lawyer if they don’t give it to you). Then ask them what their plan is to improve matters, including whether they would kick the other child out. I’d also point out that if your child leaves, the bullying child will probably transfer the behavior to someone else and therefore your child may not be the last one to leave. 
Good luck – that sounds heartwrenching!"

 

"If your thinking of leaving the school I would talk to the director and let them know how your feeling. It gives them an opportunity to then discuss it with the other family or possibly ask them to no longer bring their son there due to his behavior and their unwillingness to try to curb the behavior. My child isn't in school yet (18 mo) so  I'm not sure how I would handle it. It must be hard!!  Is there anything that he could learn from the situation?Good luck! Go with your gut!"

 

"I am sorry your child is going through this. We have been on both sides of this equation—we’ve had a child who was picked on, and had a child who, around the age of 3, started acting out and hitting other kids. The first thing I would say is, the parents of the child who is biting your child may be more concerned than they are letting on.  It’s a natural response to try to defend your child in front of other people. At home, they may be struggling to curb or control the behavior. I would not address them directly. That’s the daycare’s job.
It sounds, however, like they are not getting the support or help they need from the daycare—nor are you.  If their child has issues, it is the daycare’s job to bring that to their attention, and help find solutions.  Maybe the child would benefit from counseling, or even some sort of evaluation to see if the child needs some special services.  If that is not the case and the child is simply in a biting stage, the daycare needs to implement strategies to help that child learn self control. Moreover, they certainly aren’t helping you or your child! You say that the biting child is older. How much older? Should the different aged children be grouped together like that?  And if the biter needs better supervision, is there an aide or attendant who can shadow that child? Frankly, it sounds to me like the daycare is dropping the ball, and is not taking the proper steps to help either family. If it were me, I think I’d look for another daycare, which just might kill two birds with one stone: you’d get away from the biter, and also place your child in a more secure environment."

 

"My cousin's twins have been in daycare in NJ for years.  Any time a child gets bitten, or bites, the parents are called.  Even if the twins bit each other.  It is taken seriously Decades ago my child was in daycare in PS & a regular biter was asked to leave the center.  I felt bad for the parents but no interventions worked."

 

Other advice:

 

From both perspectives:

 

"I've experienced this from both angles.  In day care, my daughter, now 7, was a bitee numerous times and my son, now 5, had a period as a biter.  Fortunately, their day care center handled it very well.  They addressed it but were not going to kick out the biter. (I think that a zero tolerance for biting reflects extremely poorly on that day care center in a way beyond their biting policy.)

I don't think there's a 100% chance that your daughter will be bit again.  Biting is a phase that kids go through - she might or might not be bit again by the same child.  My daughter was (and still is!) fine even though she was bit regularly for a bit.  And the child who my son bit has turned out fine!  (And fortunately her parents were laid back about the whole thing.)  Hopefully, if your daughter is bit again, the skin won't break, but if it does, why do you think that would call for medical care? (Putting aside some really unusual occurrence, does a kid bit by another kid ever need medical attention? I'd guess no, but maybe I'm wrong?)

I recommend patience and empathy with the biter and his/her parents.  (If your kid was the biter how would you hope that others would handle it?)  When you say that the day care center doesn't have a policy, do you mean that they don't have a firm policy of kicking out biters? From your post, it sounds like they may be addressing it. If they are doing things like talking to the biter in an appropriate way about not biting (teaching supportively, not scolding), reading a book on appropriate things to do with teeth etc, then it seems to me they are handling it well (except that if it was the day care providers who told you who the biter was, then that's not so great)."

 

From the biter perspective:

 

"When my son, then 11 months old, began biting electrical cords for fun - we resorted to time outs after trying redirection, no, gentle reminding, removing him completely (he'd remember and go back and do it again as soon as he was put near one.)
So, of course I would recommend trying to teach gentle touching first. And of course, try to see if you can remember what prompted the bite and avoid the situation again (perhaps he needs teething medication before a playdate, a favorite toy should be put away or not brought, he needs to learn to take turns - my son didn't get that until about 14 months though).
It sounds crazy, but by 11 months old they really do understand cause and effect. We used 15-30 second time outs in his room (which is totally babyproofed, but you could use a pack and play). He stopped within 2 days, after 3 time outs.
We are attachment parents, so we aren't into lots of punishment or crying. We have since used time outs about 4 more times (in 8 months) for various dangerous activity that couldn't be redirected, and have had a max of 30 seconds. After, we simply open the door and resume activities, we don't make a big deal out of it. Try www.askdrsears.com for help too."

 

"My son was a biter. I can't remember when it started, but he was in daycare and it was rough. He bit his best daycare pal so badly it broke his skin! I was mortified. We did tons of internet research on biting. I can recommend a few things:
     --Buy the kid's book Teeth Are Not for Biting and read it to your son as often as possible. Even though he is young, he will start to absorb the message. I got my copy at that indie bookstore on Court Street. I bought one for his daycare, too!
     --Give him soft things to chew on because he is probably teething. If he uses a pacifier, let him keep it in his mouth during playdates, etc.
     --Most biting incidents erupt because of a fight over a toy or other "territory". For a few months I had to hover over my son during playgroups. At daycare, they sometimes seprated my son from his most frequent bite victims and let him play with kids who did not evoke him.
     --Also, biting results from being tired, so try to have playdates that don't interfere with naps. I always left playgroups well before naptime to avoid any problems.
     --Hang in there because they outgrow it. My son hasn't bitten for a few months now. I think it was just a phase.
Let me know if you need any support! I was very anxious about this for a few months, so I can empathize."

 

"My son bit at that age, and he grew out of it. i think it really is because they don't have other means of expressing their frustrations. He is now 20 months, and has grown out of the biting stage. I was in your exact shoes, and all of the parents with older children told me he would grow out of it, and now he has! It will pass!"

 

"I wish I could tell you there is a magic bullet, but instead I will simply tell you what we've been doing - but that my own otherwise very sweet son, at 19 months, is still doing some biting. I think [my child]  began biting kids around the same age as your son. He tends to do it when a kid is either trying to take away a toy that he is playing with or trying to push him out of the way. Basically, anytime someone is getting in his face and he doesn't like it. He isn't great with sharing space (or things), and I can tell he gets very stressed about it, and that leads to the biting. At 11 months, we would remove him from the situation, tell him "NO BITING" and hold him in our lap for a short "time out" in hopes that the break in the activity, and the withholding of playtime would redirect him. It worked fairly well for a while.
Then, at some point, he started biting again. This time it's more challenging, but he is also at a point developmentally where he can understand and communicate a little better. Now we are doing a lot of positive reinforcement when we see that he was in a
situation in which he sometimes would bite but hasn't, and doing more severe time outs (leaving the playground, closing him into his bedroom for a timed one-minute time out). Oh, but both when he was younger and now, it also seems to help to follow the "No biting" pronouncement with a big fuss by me over the kid he bit and hoping s/he is okay, etc. Good luck."

 

"Toddlers are so impulsive and emotional and reactive, they just do these things, and you have to be prepared for unacceptable behavior. You just need to swoop in, lift him away from the other child, hold him stiffly out in front of you, look him in the eye, and tell him "NO. Don't bite/hit/pull hair/etc! That hurts!" Keep your voice very firm and eyes steely. Then remove him from whatever fun situation he'd been in - the playgroup or toys or snacks or whatever. Put him on the floor next to your feet and give him a tiny time out - 1 minute tops. Don't cuddle him, don't respond to his entreaties, and if he toddles off toward the toys/play area, etc. physically stop him. But only for one minute.  You are usually so calm and warm and affectionate, that Guthrie will notice right away that something has changed between you. He may not connect his biting with your response immediately, but if his bad behavior happens often enough (and all toddlers do these things)he'll figure it out. Be prepared to be embarrassed on a regular basis, and take comfort in the fact that you are not alone."

 

From the bitee perspective:

 

"My son was bitten once at daycare (and we did know who did it, and overall liked the kid and parents), and I was really annoyed – then told the story to my mother, who told me used to be so embarrassed by the bite marks my brother (17 months younger than I am) and would leave on each other as toddlers that she once dressed us both in turtlenecks to take us to the park one summer day. That helped me put it in perspective: both told me that this is pretty common and normal, and made me realize that if I had two kids and one of them bit the other, I would blame the child and not particularly blame myself. My son didn’t seem at all traumatized by it at the time. And, although any injury that broke the skin should be disinfected carefully, they usually don’t. (That part might be worth asking your doctor about, though.)."

 

Related reading on PSP:

Hitting (15 month old)

"Hit Me Baby One More Time": Advice For When Your Toddler Hits You

Bullying in Pre-K

Temper Tantrums with the Terrible Twos