Is it normal for a toddler to bite?
Biting is a common occurrence in babies and toddlers. And although it’s common, the reasons babies bite differ greatly.
Most babies and toddlers will eventually outgrow biting as they learn to manage their underlying emotions, sensations and behaviours. But while this does provide some relief to parents, caregivers and educators, it doesn’t offer immediate solutions.
Why do toddlers bite?
This is a loaded question and, unfortunately, there is no one right answer as to why children bite. Many would believe that biting is purely behavioural and that it should be punished.
Although there is a behavioural component to biting, you have to also understand that many other factors play a role in biting. Here are five reasons why your toddler may be biting.
1. They’re trying to calm themselves
When babies are born, they’re often dysregulated and in need of calming strategies. Instinctively, we hold them which provides deep pressure through their bodies (deep pressure is also known as proprioception and helps to calm the nervous system). We also start moving with them, whether it’s by rocking them, cradling them, or just walking around with them in our arms. When you move with them, you’re stimulating their vestibular system (inner ear) which may also have a calming effect on the nervous system. And lastly, we offer them comfort by having them breastfeed, giving them a bottle, or giving them a pacifier to suck on. Many breastfeeding mothers will tell you that babies often breastfeed purely for the comfort it provides. This stimulates the oral-tactile system, and this system in turn has the potential to calm the nervous system.
Although we do this to help regulate a baby, these systems have the potential to calm down our nervous systems whatever our age. Toddlers, children, teenagers, and adults all unconsciously use these systems to help calm themselves or keep focused (this is called regulating to a task).
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Challenge yourself and think of how you use these systems to calm yourself (getting hugs, going for a run, stress eating) or keep yourself focused (chewing your pencil, tapping your feet, fidgeting with something). We instinctively rely on these systems to get us through the day.
Babies also unconsciously rely on these systems to help keep themselves calm and focused. The difference is that they don’t always know how to stimulate themselves appropriately. From this, you may find that a baby starts to roll around or move their head excessively when falling asleep or bite nipples in breastfeeding and bottles of teats.
2. They’re teething
Along with the sensory implications of these systems, babies and toddlers are also going through teething where they may experience irritation and inflammation in the mouth and jaw. They will then tend to bite down on objects to relieve this pain.
3. They’re curious
The development of their play and cognitive skills also plays a role in biting. From around seven months of age, babies start taking part in cause-and-effect play. In this type of play, they’ll want to see how their actions influence objects and people around them. They’ll love to hit over a tower to watch it fall, throw objects to see how they move, and bang objects against one another just to see what happens. This type of play continues until around the age of two years. Babies may also bite objects or others to see the effect this will have.
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4. They feel frustrated and overwhelmed
As babies grow older and start their process into toddlerhood, they’ll be faced with many new and frustrating situations. Toddlers are known for their need to be and feel autonomous; they want to do things themselves and decide what they want to do.
Unfortunately, they’re not as capable as they think they are, and you can’t always let them have their way. As they don’t have the insight to understand and respect “no”, they’ll naturally be very upset with this decision. When playing with peers, they’ll struggle to take turns and consistently play nicely with others. All of this contributes to their already low frustration tolerance. This means that they’re easily overwhelmed by their emotions and struggle to handle frustrating situations.
5. They want to express their feelings
Further contributing to their feelings of frustration is their ability to communicate. Although toddlers may understand words and conversations well, it will take a while before they’re able to use as many words as and converse like adults. This can often create a barrier in understanding their thoughts and needs, and ultimately adds to their frustration.
In an attempt to express their feelings of frustration or to help regulate themselves (through their oral-tactile and proprioceptive systems), toddlers will bite others. Often times not even realising what they are doing before it’s too late.
6. They can't always control their impulses
Toddlers also struggle to control their impulses and biting may be their knee-jerk reaction to stressful or frustrating situations. That’s why you will often find that they’re able to acknowledge that they shouldn’t bite others when they’re calm and relaxed but can’t help themselves in moments of feeling overwhelmed.
How to stop your toddler from biting
In order to address your toddler’s biting, you can follow these top tips:
1. Determine why the child is biting
By understanding the cause, you can effectively address it. If the cause is simple, like teething, you can continue on to the next top tip. But if the cause is difficult to determine, try to identify specific situations that evoke biting – like sharing, playing at a playground or school etc. You can also keep track to determine if biting occurs at specific times during the day. This will help you understand if they’re biting because of predominant sensory or predominant behavioural aspects.
2. Address the underlying cause
Once you understand why your toddler is biting, you can address the underlying cause. This can either be simple, like providing teething rings to teething babies, or it can be more intricate, like using sensory diets, introducing routines to daily functioning, or adjusting participation in trigger situations.
3. Create a daily routine
Routine is very important for all babies and toddlers. They don’t yet understand the ways of daily life and don’t have the ability to easily regulate themselves to tasks. If you have a daily routine in place, they’ll understand this natural order and be better prepared for what’s to come. This will allow them to generally be more well-regulated and reduce their frustration levels.
4. Make adjustments to trigger situations
If you found that a toddler is biting because they want to swing at the playground and struggle to wait their turn, you can adjust the situation by adding an order and specific expectations. These can be simple expectations like every friend gets five swings or the order in which everyone will get their turn. Try to find a level of consistency in trigger situations to reduce the chances of frustration.
5. Introduce a sensory diet
A sensory diet includes a series of physical activities your child can do at home. It has nothing to do with food. It can either be created by adding enough oral-tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular input into their daily functioning or by having these types of input ready in moments of frustration. Examples of these types of input can be hard, chewy and textured foods like nuts, apples, and dried meats for oral-tactile and proprioceptive input. Jumping on a trampoline, doing animal walks, swinging for proprioceptive and vestibular input. Playdough and stress-balls are also great for proprioceptive input.
6. Address the incident
When you want to address biting, you need to take the age and incident into account.
If babies are biting during feedings, remove the bottle or nipple and say “no” very sternly. Put the bottle or breast away, stand up and restart the feeding session. You need to teach babies that this isn’t allowed in a gentle but firm way. It will take many repetitions and possibly take days to a few weeks for this method to work, but it’s by far the best approach.
You have to understand that toddlers bite because of frustration and dysregulation. You can’t retaliate with these same behaviours. So, biting, yelling and harsh forms of discipline will only serve as a model for the behaviour they’re already expressing.
This means that you have to be calm, consistent and stern. When a toddler bites others, you need to respond immediately with a stern and loud “NO.” Once the incident has happened, tell them, “we do not bite others, biting hurts.” You can make them part of the conversation by adding questions and phrases, like “Are we allowed to hurt our friends?”, “Biting hurts.”, “We don’t bite our friends.” Ask them to apologise to the friend.
Later, once they’re calm, enforce the concept that biting is not okay through discussions of scenarios and social stories/rhymes/songs. Give plenty of positive reinforcement as they take part in the discussion instead of simply giving them instructions and demanding that they do it.
Make sure that they know feeling frustrated and angry isn’t wrong, as we all experience these feelings. Rather, give options and alternatives that they can use when they feel this way – such as the sensory diet techniques. Include this in your social stories.
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