What to Do About Biting

Ouch! Are they just "love" bites, or something more serious?

Q. My 13-month-old has started biting me and I don't know what to do. He will give me a hug and bite my shoulder or will start to give me a kiss and bite my cheek. How can I teach him that biting hurts?

A. For young toddlers like yours, biting behavior is normal and often a temporary phenomenon that fades as children realize that biting is hurtful, develop greater language ability to express their strong feelings, and learn other coping skills.

In your case, it sounds like your son just needs some help expressing his loving and excited feelings in a different way. When he gives you a love-nibble, try to stay calm but stop him in his tracks. Your natural, immediate reaction -- jumping, startling, yelping -- is often very effective in letting your child know that he's done something wrong.

Next, say in a stern tone with a serious face, "Biting hurts! No biting." Although your child might not understand the actual words now, he soon will. Until then, your expression and tone of voice speak volumes. Let your son know you understand that he is just trying to show you how much he loves you, and demonstrate another way he can express himself, such as by kissing you with only his lips!

With some children, biting is more than a brief phase. Watching and reading a child's cues helps parents learn more about what stimuli and situations set their child up for biting. When and where is he more likely to bite? Is it out of frustration, stress, fear, anger, or excitement? Is it when he's feeling overwhelmed emotionally, or perhaps when he wants some attention? If a child tends to bite when he's overwhelmed or upset, for instance, notice when he is showing signs of stress and help him calm down before he loses it. Validate his feelings -- "It feels so bad when someone takes your toy" -- and give him a firm hug, which often helps children settle down. As he grows, you can teach him to put those feelings into words, and offer him alternate ways to work them out, such as banging a xylophone, stomping his feet, making a lion face and roaring, or drawing a picture.

Although biting can be a hot-button issue for parents, remember it's not personal. Think of biting as a form of communication -- a message with teeth. If you're consistent in responding to your child's biting, with time you'll find the only message he's sending with his choppers is a smile.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2004.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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