Biting: Is It Bad Behavior or Normal Development?


I'm sure many of you have experienced it...

Your cell phone rings, you look down at your phone to see it's your daycare calling. Your heart sinks thinking that something might be wrong with your little one. Apprehensively you answer your phone and are immediately informed that your child has bitten a classmate. For many, embarrassment creeps over them and they begin to profusely apologize, stressing to the director that they will address this behavior with their child- confidently assuring them that it won't happen again. A week later, another phone call from the daycare, it's happened again, and this time you can sense the frustration in the director's voice...

Unfortunately for many parent's this is an all too familiar cycle. A cycle that can provoke feelings of frustration, embarrassment, anger, and despair. But what is a parent to do?

First, as I always stress, it is important to have realistic expectations for your child. This starts with knowing what normal development looks like, and it is perfectly normal for your child to go through a developmental phase of oral exploration and even biting! In fact, research supports that biting in daycares is a very common occurrence, with most biting incidents occurring in toddlerhood (13-30 months of age). And, with a little knowledge about what typical child development looks like, it isn't hard to see how toddlerhood and daycares combine to form the perfect storm for biting occurrences...

Around 5-6 months of age, infants are putting everything in their mouths- car keys, toys, their feet, your hands/fingers. This type of oral exploration is normal and allows your child to learn about their environment, develop oral-motor skills, and acquire appropriate sensory responses in their mouths. While this is an important and completely normal developmental phase, it can be a scary time for parents as they become concerned about choking hazards and germs. Luckily, you can easily curb these safety concerns and encourage oral exploration by having a variety of accessible, clean, and safe toys like these that your child can mouth.

Oral exploration persists into toddlerhood and will begin to shift from mouthing towards chewing and biting as your child's baby teeth continue to erupt- up until about 33 months of age. It is also during this time of oral exploration and tooth eruption, that your child becomes possessive of their toys, learns that they can control their environment, and begins to develop self-regulation and inhibition through challenging authority figures and experiencing negative consequences. Unfortunately for toddlers (and their caretakers) this new-found assertiveness and possessiveness often precedes the development of language skills which are necessary for negotiation, compromise, and articulation of one's emotional status- creating the perfect recipe for a biting occurrence.

Prevention is of course the #1 goal in managing this problem and making sure your child is in the right environment for them is the first step in prevention! Toddlers are best managed in small groups with similar-aged peers whom are developing at about the same rate. Toddler's should be closely monitored, redirected, and when needed, provided with adult coaching of appropriate behavioral reactions. In a perfect scenario, prevention would like this... There are 3-4 toddlers in a group playing with building blocks. One little girl has been meticulously building a tower with a pile of blocks that she has slyly separated from the group. Another toddler approaches her to take one of the blocks from her pile for their own creation. An adult who has been close by monitoring this scenario jumps in and helps coach the child to verbally ask if they can share the blocks and then positively reinforces the little girl's tolerance of sharing with praise or a simple token economy.

It is also important to know that prevention goes beyond the scenario described above. It also includes careful monitoring and tracking of when and why a specific child is triggered to bite. Maybe it is that the child is having trouble sharing toys, or maybe the behavior is triggered from stress during loud and chaotic times of the day, or maybe that boredom has set in during naptime. Through careful observation of the environment during the time biting occurs, adults can often identify common trends and triggers for the behavior and then modify the child's environment accordingly.

While prevention is what we should all strive for, we know that it is not always feasible. So, there needs to be a pre-determined, reasonable, and consistent response to both the child that bit and the child that was bitten. Research suggests that responses should include:

  • Paying attention to and providing comfort to the child that has been bitten first, as opposed to immediate reaction to the child that bit, as this prevents unintentional positive reinforcement of the biting behavior.

  • Firm but calm statements that biting is inappropriate and is unacceptable as it hurts our friends with immediate placement in a "time out chair".

  • Consistent adult modeling of the appropriate language and emotional reaction for the scenario that resulted in the biting occurrence.

Remember that patience and consistency is key! Some children will learn quickly and modify their behavior accordingly and others will take a little longer. Give your child at least 3-4 weeks to adjust to these expectations and modify their behaviors. If after a reasonable amount of time and consistent implementation of simple behavior modification techniques your child's behavior becomes more aggressive and the frequency of biting does not decrease, you should consider an evaluation of your child's sensory processing, speech-language development, and motor skill development to determine if underlying developmental delays are the true culprit behind this behavior. If in fact a developmental delay is the culprit behind your child's biting behaviors, patience will again be key! The behavior should begin to decrease in frequency and severity as they catch up with their peers. It also might be helpful to disclose any delays to the daycare as they may be more willing to provide additional adult supervision and accommodate for the weaknesses that have been identified as the root cause of the behavior.

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