When Your Child Bites
Contributed by Dr. Rebecca L. Huston
When children bite, it is normal for their parents to experience anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, frustration and anger. It helps to know that biting is a very common behavior that typically disappears quickly with the appropriate actions. But if the parent does not act right away, biting behavior can persist and even get worse.
Why do children bite?
- Teething: Children acquire 20 teeth during their first couple of years. That results in a lot of teething behavior. Sometimes children get confused and use others as a teething toy. Young children also use their mouths to explore their world.
- Attention getting: Sometimes a child will bite to get your attention. Young children are just developing communication skills and sometimes try other ways to get their message across.
- Frustration: The world can be a very frustrating place for young children and they sometimes lash out when they are frustrated, tired or angry.
- Learned behavior: Sometimes young children are imitating other children when they bite.
What should I do when my child bites?
- React promptly: It is very important to react right away to the biting. Tell the child "No biting" in a firm, but calm tone. There needs to be a "zero tolerance" policy for biting and other aggressive behavior. Try very hard to remain calm.
- Time out: Remove the child from the current activity. Place the child in a neutral place but avoid giving too much attention. Remember that sometimes biting is done to get your attention - even negative attention. If biting has occurred before, then a time out is appropriate - typically one minute for each year of your child's age.
- Monitor child closely: Watch your child carefully in high-risk situations, such as when your child is tired, hungry, or competing with another child for a favorite toy. Also watch out during stressful changes at home, like potty-training, moving, or the arrival of a new sibling. Keep activities short. Use distraction techniques and redirect your child to another activity. Have items on hand like snacks or teething rings cooled in the fridge to soothe their pain. Keep your fingers out of the child's mouth!
- Catch your child being good: One of the most effective ways to eliminate problem behaviors in a child is to give them positive reinforcement for good behaviors. Encourage your child's use of words to express feelings, like "I want my toy back please," or "I'm tired." Be sure that you and your child have some quality one-on-one time every day, like reading books or playing games.
What about biting back?
No! Many parents have told me they were advised by their relatives or their child's daycare staff to bite the child back when biting occurs. This is never a helpful response and will only teach the child that aggressive behavior is normal.
- Wash all bites with soap and water. If the bite is bleeding or deep, call a doctor. The wound may need medical attention.
- If your child continues to bite after age four or five, it means there may be some emotional concerns to address. Talk to your pediatrician.
About the Expert: Rebecca L. Huston, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., has been a pediatrician in San Antonio for 28 years. She is the mother of two grown boys. Dr. Huston is currently the Section Chief of General Pediatrics with Baylor College of Medicine at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio.