When 18-month-old John Locke came home from day care one day with a suspicious mark on his back, his mom, Martha, of Springfield, Virginia, was understandably concerned. "I had no idea what it was, and I didn't want to suspect the worst." However, she soon found out that John's injury was inflicted by the teeth of another toddler. "I was appalled. I had no idea that kids this age bit each other."
Barbaric as it may sound, biting is pervasive -- and perfectly normal -- among the toddler set. "One- and 2-year-olds lead with their mouths," says Judith Garrard, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor of public health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in Minneapolis. "Little children like to feel things orally. It's a way for them to learn about the world as well as a source of comfort."
For some kids, though, biting becomes a temporary form of communication. "Biting at this age is not malicious," says Aubyn Stahmer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital, in San Diego. "Toddlers don't have the language skills to express how they feel, so they bite to create a stir, to express excitement, or to say that they are frustrated, anxious, or bored."
Locke got a second taste of the biting phenomenon with her younger son, Christian. "He was slow to talk. At 18 months, his communication of choice was chomping on me or his siblings whenever he got mad or wanted more attention." But once he began talking, says Locke, "for the most part, the biting stopped."
The circumstances under which kids bite vary widely. "Some kids bite only at home because it's a safe environment in which to express emotions," says Dr. Stahmer. More often, however, biting occurs in child care, playgroups, or other settings in which toddlers must share toys and attention, which isn't exactly their forte. In fact, a toddler who attends a day-care facility full-time -- an estimated 225 days a year -- can expect to receive an average of seven bites per year, according to Dr. Garrard.