Your child’s first teeth: cute. Your child using said teeth to bite people: not so cute. But as frustrating (and painful) as it may be, biting is both a common and normal part of childhood.
Biting, if it happens, is usually a phase — and tends to happen anywhere between 9 months to 3 years of age. For younger children, biting can be both a way to explore the world or offer immediate relief from teething. So simple teething rings or cold washcloths can cut down on the problem.
For older children, biting may be used as a way to get attention, helping them test their boundaries and challenge authority. They may be tired, they may be frustrated or they simply may want to know how you or their “victim” will react.
“When children don’t have words to express their feelings, they tend to act out more with behaviors like biting,” says Dr. Richard Short, a board-certified pediatrician affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
Combating biting as a behavioral problem takes understanding and, more importantly, a lot of patience. With consistency and the right guidance, children can learn other ways to communicate with both you and those around them. To help, Dr. Short suggests trying a variety of methods.
1. Repeat phrases.
Children rarely get it right the first time, so it often takes reminding. Use a phrase like, “No, we don’t bite,” calmly and consistently, so your child begins to expect the same message from you.
2. Take breaks.
Timeouts serve as gentle reminders that your child’s actions have consequences. They also give him or her the opportunity to calm down, reset and gain some personal space.
3. Encourage words.
When old enough, ask your child to “use their words.” By verbally communicating anger or confusion, it’s easier for children to feel as if they are being heard.
4. Think outside the bite.
Acting out is often caused by something simple, such as hunger or fatigue. Tune into your child’s feelings by asking yourself if a nap or snack is in order.
5. Reward good behavior.
It’s easy to reprimand bad behavior, but rewarding good behavior can have a bigger impact. Watch out for opportunities to tell your child what he or she is doing right.
If these strategies don’t work, Dr. Short suggests reaching out to your child’s doctor. He or she may have suggestions you hadn’t thought of, or simply provide reassurance that you’re on the right path. No matter how you choose to address the issue, avoid these parenting pitfalls:
1. Never bite back.
The old wives’ tale is far from effective. Children tend to imitate their parents, so biting back may cause biting to happen again — and trigger other bad habits as well.
2. Never laugh at biting.
Resist the temptation to giggle at this strange behavior, as it puts a positive spin on a negative thing. And remind grandparents and other family members to follow suit.
3. Never lecture.
Be stern and simple, but keep the lectures to a minimum. Instead, encourage children to talk to you, instead of lecturing to them.
4. Never let frustration get the best of you.
No matter how many times your child bites, don’t forget that he or she is, in fact, a child. Eventually, he or she will get it. And the less you react, the quicker your child will grow bored of biting.
“My own daughter went through this,” says Dr. Short. “The trick is realizing how common it is, and giving them lots of positive reinforcement before they get bored and do something naughty.”