This is a discussion I have on a regular basis with parents of children in my practice.
Toddlers bite others or even bite themselves for a number of reasons. Most commonly, this behavior is out of frustration and the inability to express emotions in another manner. Most toddlers cannot communication their wants and needs through words, so out of frustration they bite. These children are developmentally and neurologically normal. Some children just bite out of boredom. The act of biting usually does not purposefully inflict pain or do any damage.
Reasons for biting vary by age:
- Newborns up to age six months bite while breastfeeding due to a jaw clench, trying to slow the flow of breast-feeding, or neurologic immaturity. Consult a lactation specialist (don’t forget about LLL led by Courtney) to help resolve these issues.
- Infants from 6-15 months usually bite out of excitement. They are letting out emotions and sometimes these bites are “love bites” and not out of anger.
- As mentioned above, toddlers aged 15-36 months tend to bite out of frustration.
- Children over 3 years old who bite mainly do so as a defense mechanism. At this age they should be told that biting is inappropriate and need to be taught other techniques to express anger and fear and demonstrate self-control.
So what can you do about biting/biters?
If your child is the biter (himself or others), work with him on how to express himself. Do this by being a role model on how to verbally and behaviorally express emotions. Adults need to supervise children playing with each other, especially in a daycare setting. Many times the biting can be prevented before it occurs if an adult can diffuse the situation before it happens. When children start arguing over a toy, an adult can stop the biting before it occurs. Children model how we as adults, their parents, teachers, etc. deal with anger. Be a role model. Praise your child when he demonstrates proper coping skills.
As a response to the biting, time out is appropriate. Time out should occur immediately after the biting occurs. Time out serves as a social separation from his friends and they learn that biting is not an effective way to deal with frustrations. Afterwards, the child should be allowed to verbally express himself. Let the child know that biting hurts and then turn the attention to the victim.
Do not bite them back. Parental biting does not teach your child that biting hurts. It just reinforces the biting behavior because it is often done out of parental frustration. Do not lose your temper.
If you child appears to be purposely inflicting pain on himself, please contact your pediatrician. Children over three years old who bite repeatedly should be discussed with their pediatrician.
If you child is bitten, simply wash the area with soap and water. You can then apply over the counter antibiotic ointment. Watch for an evidence of infection. A tetanus shot is not needed.
For resources on the topic, please visit the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Alicia DePaula
Dr. DePaula earned her medical degree from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport in 2003. She went on to complete her residency in Jackson, MS at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2006 and returned to Louisiana in 2009. She has been serving patients in the Destrehan area ever since. Dr. DePaula is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. Dr. DePaula practices at Ochsner Children’s Health Center – Destrehan on Ormond Boulevard. She can be reached at 985-764-6036.
This information is for general educational purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please review all information regarding any medical condition or treatment with your physician.