Let us be honest nobody wants to hear how your bright-eyed cutie toddler has bitten his/her friends, nor does one want your child to be on the receiving end of such a bite. But why do toddlers bite? And what can we, as parents and teachers do to redirect this behaviour?
First of all, let us get the ‘mommy-guilt’ out of the way. No, you did not do something wrong as a parent, you are not the reason why your child bites. But you can play an invaluable role in redirecting this behaviour.
Biting is not uncommon for the pre-toddler (12-24 months) and toddler (24-36 months) age groups. Let us explore possible reasons for this behaviour:
DIFFICULTY EXPRESSING THEMSELVES VERBALLY – LANGUAGE RELATED
They are still learning to use language to express intense emotions, or explaining what they want. Feelings of frustration as they do not have the language skill set to express their wants needs and desires appropriately. “I am so mad at you”, “You are standing too close to me”, “I am really excited”. Biting in this sense is a primitive reaction. It is, however, not socially appropriate, but understandable.
FEELING OVERSTIMULATED OR OVERWHELMED
Toddlers are still busy with their sensory integration. They are trying to make sense of what they hear, feel on their skin (tactile sense) as well as the ‘inside’ feeling of their bodies for example, the feeling of being hungry (interoception), taste, smell, see, movement (vestibular sense) as well as feeling where their body is in space (proprioceptive sense). This is quite a lot of information to process. Some children have difficulty processing this, perhaps due to a sensitivity to one or more sense, and then becomes OVERSTIMULATED. Our proprioceptive system is the system most often used to calm down our bodies (neurological system). And guess what? Your jaw is one of the places in the body with the most concentrated amount of proprioceptors. HENCE children who are overstimulated bite. Biting calms them down. They do not intend to cause harm to another, but merely trying to calm themselves down.
TEETHING AND/OR IN NEED OF ORAL STIMULATION
This is a common reason for biting, as their gums may be itchy and painful. Thus the act of biting is merely to alleviate the itchiness in their gums. Some children need more oral stimulation regardless of teething.
WANTING ATTENTION / EXPERIMENTING
Toddlers are in the ongoing process of learning cause and effect relationships. Often times, toddlers will bite, as an experiment. What will happen if I bite my friend? Mom? Teacher? Or they have seen the behaviour from their siblings and or friends in class and is curious as to what the effect would be if they tried it themselves. They may even make the connection that ‘the one in class who bites, gets the attention, and hence bites to get attention.
We all know how we feel when we are sleep deprived. Toddlers may be more likely to become overstimulated when they are feeling tired and therefore more likely to have a bite incident.
RECIPE FOR WHEN MY TODDLER BITES
1. Keep your own feelings in check. When a toddler bites, you might feel frustrated, infuriated, annoyed, embarrassed, and/or worried. All of these feelings are normal, but responding when you are in an intense emotional state is usually not a good idea. So calm yourself before you respond—count to 10, take a deep breath.
2. Identifying the kinds of situations that often lead to biting will help you find the best way to prevent biting.
3. In a firm, matter-of-fact voice (but not angry or yelling), say: NO BITING. BITING HURTS or I CANNOT LET YOU BITE LUCY. Comment on how the other child is feeling: Look, Lucy is crying. She is crying because you bit her. Biting hurts. Keep it short, simple and clear.
4. Shift your attention to the child who was bitten. Often when a child bites, adults pay a lot of attention to him or her. This is usually negative attention, but it is still very reinforcing and can actually cause the biting behaviour to continue, rather than stop. When parents shift their focus and energy to the child who was bitten, they clearly communicate that biting does not result in more attention. Showing concern and sympathy for the child who was bitten also teaches empathy.
5. Help the children move on. Ask: What would you like to play now? It might help to offer activities, like play-dough, drawing, or playing in sand or water, that allow them to release energy in constructive ways and can help them relax. The toddler who bit and the child who was hurt should not be made to play with one another, unless they want to.
Remember, learning a new behavior takes time. Your toddler may bite again, so continue watching playtime closely. It also helps to use the same words (No biting. Biting hurts.) as consistently as possible to emphasize the message.
POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO PREVENT/REDUCE BITING
Support Communication and Language Skills
Put into words what you guess your child might be thinking: Tanya, do you want to have a turn on the tricycle? You can ask Henry, “Can I have a turn now?”
Help your child express his feelings in appropriate ways. If your child is really angry, you can say: Max, you are so mad! You are really, really angry. Then suggest a way to deal with these feelings: Let us go throw the ball outside, Let us jump on the trampoline, let us go box the pillows. These suggestions must, however, be socially appropriate.
Reinforce your child when he uses words to share his/her feelings: “You asked me for a turn blowing bubbles instead of grabbing them. Great job. Here you go.”
Give your child age-appropriate choices, for example, about what to wear or who to play with. Having choices gives children a sense of control and can reduce biting. Make sure that you are okay with either one of the two choices you give to your child.
Consider a speech-language assessment if you think your child’s verbal skills might be delayed. The general rule of thumb is that a child of two should be able to put two to three words together.
OVER STIMULATED / OVERWHELMED
Help Your Child Cope With Feeling Overwhelmed
The key here is to ‘know’ your child’s sensory profile. What is he/she more sensitive to? If your child is easily overwhelmed by lights, sound, and activity, you can:
Keep television and radio off or on low volumes.
Schedule activities with a lot of sensory input (like clothes-shopping or trips to the dentist or doctor) for your child’s “best” times of day, when he is fed and well-rested. At school one would typically do the sensory challenging activities earlier in the day when they are well-rested and fed. This will allow them to cope/tolerate various sensory inputs better.
Talk with your child’s teacher/grandparents about his/her difficulty managing a lot of sensory input. Brainstorm ways to reduce the amount or the type of stimulation in his/her at school/grandparents’ house.
Give your child a firm “bear” hug when you sense she is feeling stressed and out of control and perhaps about to bite. This can help children feel “held together” which can be very soothing. The firm pressure provides proprioceptive input to the body which calms down the neurological system.
Let your child play with a ‘weighted teddy’, this will help your child regulate his/her emotions via his/her proprioceptive system.
Create a “hide-out space” in your house with pillows, books and other quiet toys like stuffed animals, or use a play tent as a safe place to take a break. Explain that this is a place your child can go if he/she wants to be alone or feels out of control and needs to cool down. Do not use this as a ‘time-out’ or punishment space.
Teething or in need of oral stimulation:
Apply teething balm if teething
Inform your child’s teacher/grandparents that he/she is teething
Offer her crunchy (healthy) snacks at regular intervals across the day. Research has found that this intervention can reduce biting incidents.
Allow the use of a teether/chew toy or cold washcloth to bite
Explain the Effects of Their Actions
If your child is experimenting to see what will happen when he bites, you can:
Provide immediate, firm, unemotional (as best you can) feedback:
“No biting. Biting hurts.” Shift attention away from your child to the child who was bitten.
Help your child understand about cause-and-effect: You bit Macy and now she is crying. When you bite, it hurts your friends.
Give an ‘appropriate’ item to bite and chew. A carrot stick, chew/teething toy etc.
Distract your child with a toy or book. Suggest looking out the window or take a walk to another room or outside. The goal is to reduce the tension and shift your child’s attention.
Address Sleep Challenges
Try incrementally moving his/her bedtime 30 to 60 minutes earlier over a few weeks.
Provide your child with an opportunity to nap, if your child won’t nap, implement “quiet times” when he/she is in a quiet space with blanket/pillow/ book and soft music playing.
Avoid play-dates or other potentially stressful activities on days when he/she is very tired.
Inform your child’s teacher/grandparent when he/she has not slept well or is tired so they can shadow him/her, in order to reduce the possibility of a biting incident.
What absolutely WILL NOT work to stop biting?
Shaming or harsh punishment do not reduce biting, but they do increase your child’s fear and worry—which can increase biting incidents. Aggressive responses like these also do not teach your child the social skills he or she needs to cope with the situations that trigger biting.
Biting your child back, which some might suggest, is not a useful response. There is no research to show this behaviour reduces biting. However, it does teach your child that it’s okay to bite people when you are upset! Keep in mind that human bites can be dangerous, and biting constitutes child abuse. This is not an appropriate response to toddler biting.
Hope you found this information insightful,
Please feel free to contact me or any other occupational therapist should you have further questions regarding biting and/or your child’s sensory development.
Weighted teddies, as well as chew toys, can be ordered from
www.comfortcreatures.co.za / autismresources.co.za / babybeads.co.za