Biting in the early years is not uncommon. It is a normal part of development in children beginning in infancy. A recent survey conducted by the Early Learning Alliance Network revealed that biting incidents were a serious concern among several early childhood providers. We will explore why children bite, how to respond and ways to reduce biting in early childhood. Through having a shared understanding of biting and ways to help support families and children through this stage, we can help deter future biting and prevent unnecessary preschool expulsions.
Understanding Why Children Bite
Children bite for a variety of reasons. Often times, children act on impulse as they are still building executive function. While still developing impulse control and empathy, a child might bite in a moment of frustration before pausing and finding an alternative way to express their emotions. Although biting may be perceived as an aggressive behavior, young children often do not act out of aggression. Here are some of the reasons biting occurs:
- Teething (mouthing or biting toys)
- Cause and effect (“If I bite, what will happen?”)
- Communicating difficult emotions and desires (tired, hungry, upset, etc)
- Attention seeking behavior/limit testing
- Need for oral stimulation
- Environment is over or under stimulating
How to Respond When Biting Occurs
It is very important to address biting early on so that a behavioral issue does not arise in the future. Immediately consoling the bitten child, expressing empathy and validating their feelings is key. Then approach the child who bit in a calm even, tone while kneeling down at eye level. In her blog article, Biting, Hitting, Kicking and Other Challenging Toddler Behavior, parent coach, Janet Lansbury, suggests saying a phrase like “I won’t let you bite me. That hurts. I’m going to have to put you down and get something you can bite safely.” Or you might simply say “I won’t let you
bite.” She emphasizes the importance of staying ‘unruffled’ and relaxed, keeping in mind that this child needs your help. All children need to feel safe and loved. They have big emotions are learning how to navigate their surrounding world and express themselves in appropriate ways. We can help them by maintaining a calm presence and not shaming or punishing when biting occurs.
Ways to Reduce Biting in the Early Years
Although biting cannot always be prevented, there are ways to reduce the likelihood. If it is due to an environmental factor, we can adapt the environment to meet the needs of the child who is biting. A child with sensory needs will need more opportunities for sensory exploration, maybe exploring a wider variety of textured foods. A child who is overstimulated might be calmed with soothing music or yoga/mindfulness. Other ways to reduce biting include:
- Careful observation in order to prevent biting from occurring and remaining close to intervene when necessary
- Maintaining a predictable schedule and consistent routines
- Evaluating the environment and making changes when needed
- Offering ample time to explore outdoors
- Providing a variety of sensory experiences
- Helping children find words to express their feelings (naming emotions)
- Modeling perspective taking and empathy (through stories and role play)
Biting can be a challenge for parents and for caregivers alike, however by working together to identify any unmet need(s), setting consistent boundaries, providing alternatives, and offering gentle guidance we can help reduce the likelihood of biting becoming habitual.