It’s common for children between the ages of 1 and 3 to bite others. Here’s what you should do if it happens.
It’s common for children to bite, especially before the age of 3. They may bite other children, but also their parents.
Why do children bite?
Biting is an impulsive behaviour that can mean different things in a baby, a 2-year-old, or an older child. For example, when babies bite, it may simply be an attempt to explore. A baby grabbing onto a playmate’s arm and taking a chomp out of curiosity is very different from an older child biting a friend who took their toy.
Babies use their mouths to learn and explore. They suckle, taste their first foods, suck on their fingers, and chew on any object they come across. Their mouths allow them to discover what they like and dislike. Because children are so used to exploring with their mouths, they may sometimes use their teeth to try to assert themselves as they get older.
Despite appearances, young children don’t bite with the intention to do harm. A child’s brain hasn’t yet developed to the point where they understand the consequences of their actions.
Situations that may lead to biting
Because young children lack the language skills to express themselves and are unable to regulate their emotions, they may react to certain situations by biting. This can happen for a number of reasons:
They want to take back an object or they want someone else’s toy.
They’re teething, and biting is a way to relieve the pain.
They’re just having fun and aren’t aware of their strength.
They’re overexcited and want to express affection or joy, and biting is a way to release tension.
They’ve experienced a stressful event (e.g., a change in their routine, a move, the arrival of a new sibling).
They want an adult’s attention.
They’re defending themself.
They’ve learned that biting is an effective way to get what they want.
They’re in an environment where they don’t feel comfortable, such as a small room with many other children or a place where the routine doesn’t fit with their needs.
They’ve witnessed or been the victim of aggressive behaviour.
Babies start teething at 3 to 12 months. If your baby starts to bite, it may be because a tooth is coming in. Biting or applying pressure to the gums can relieve some of their discomfort. To keep your little one from biting other people, give them a teething ring or toy. Make sure never to tie a teething ring around your baby’s neck, as the cord could choke them.
What should you do if your child bites someone?
The best way to get your child to stop biting is to step in right away. Whether your child has bitten you or someone else, here’s what to do:
- Stay calm and don’t overreact. If your child is trying to get your attention, a strong reaction may encourage them to try biting again.
- First, take care of the child who was bitten and comfort them. If your child bit them to get your attention, they’ll see that it wasn’t effective and will be less likely to do it again.
- Assess the damage. If the skin was broken, wash the wound with warm water and soap. Apply ice or a cool cloth to prevent swelling.
- Encourage your child to make up for their actions. Ask them to get a clean cloth to apply to the wound or a stuffed toy to comfort the other child, for example.
Make sure no one laughs or treats your child’s behaviour lightly.
- Avoid long explanations. Look your child in the eye and say calmly, but firmly: “We don’t bite people.” Explain the consequences of their actions in simple words: “You can see that your friend is crying. You hurt them.” If their vocabulary is still very limited, simply say: “No biting.”
- If your child is still worked up, wait for them to calm down and give them a comforting object, such as their blankie. When they’re calm, help them put what they want or feel into words—for example, “I want the truck” or “I’m angry.” Go over what happened using short sentences: “I know you’re angry, but biting is wrong.”
- Show your child how to express themself through actions and words. While they may understand that they shouldn’t bite, they haven’t yet learned how to control themself or find other ways to feel better. For instance, you can say: “Let’s go tell your friend what you didn’t like,” or “Tell them, ‘It’s mine’ or ‘I don’t want to.’”
- Remove your child from the situation immediately if they bite again. Say: “You can’t play with the others if you bite them. It hurts.”
When a child bites their parent
As a parent, you may feel offended if your child bites you. If they do, try to stay calm and refrain from yelling. Remember that your child doesn’t realize what they’re doing. Your child needs you to help them learn that their actions have consequences and that there are more acceptable ways to express themself.
If they bite you out of anger, say: “No, that hurts. It’s okay to be angry, but in our family, we don’t bite.” Next, help them identify their emotion or the object of their frustration, and encourage them to express themself. For example, say: “Use your words. Say, ‘I’m angry.’”
If your child bites you again a few minutes later, you can walk away. Explain that you were hurt and that you’re taking a break from playing.
Things to avoid doing when your child bites
- Don’t ask your little one to hug the child they hit to make up for biting them. The child on the receiving end of the bite will likely have no desire for a hug.
- Don’t demand that your child apologize, as they won’t understand the meaning of the word. They would only be doing it to please you.
- Don’t say things like “You’re mean” or “Don’t be a baby” to your child, because it may damage their self-esteem.
- Never bite your child to show them that biting hurts. It’s not an effective way of getting them to stop biting. Even worse, since you’re their role model, they may get the impression that this type of behaviour is acceptable. They might even come to view biting as a way to solve problems.
How do you prevent your child from biting again?
All children eventually grow out of biting, but some take longer than others. Be patient and firm. Keep an eye out for warning signs so you can step in before anything happens.
Young children tend to get more aggressive when they’re tired, frustrated, overexcited, hungry, etc.
- Try to understand what made your child bite. Who did they bite? When? Where? What was the situation? You can also ask their caregivers questions. Their answers may help you get to the root of the problem. For example, if your child bites when they feel crowded, try setting up a quiet space where they can play alone until they feel ready to rejoin the others.
- Stay on guard in the days following a biting incident. If you sense that your child may bite again, intervene quickly by redirecting their attention or asking them to stay close to you.
- Praise your child when they behave. This reinforces positive behaviour.
- Help your child identify their emotions by name. For example, post pictures of people expressing three emotions: anger, sadness, and joy. Point to each emotion and explain what it represents. If your child is angry, show them the picture of the angry face and say, “You’re angry.”
When should you seek help?
Contact your CLSC for advice if, after a few months, none of your strategies are working, your child’s biting is accompanied by other aggressive behaviours, or your child is causing themself harm.
Things to keep in mind
Young children don’t bite with the intention of doing harm.
It’s best to comfort the victim before dealing with the child who did the biting.
It’s important to understand why a child bites in order to find the right solutions.
Scientific review: Chloé Gaumont, M.Sc., psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: July 2018
Photos: BSIP/LEMOINE and iStock.com/Marina_Di
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Bourcier, Sylvie. L’agressivité chez l’enfant de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 248 pp.
Bourcier, Sylvie. Comprendre et guider le jeune enfant: à la maison, à la garderie. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2004, 168 pp.
Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Aggressive behaviours: You can help to manage them.” www.child-encyclopedia.com.