Many 1-year-olds use their teeth instead of their tongues. Here's how to take the bite out of toddlerhood.

By Marg Stark, Megan Mattes, and Reshma Memon Yaqub
Updated May 21, 2020
Advertisement
Credit: pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/Shutterstock

Ever since your kid was an infant, she's probably enjoyed putting anything she could get her hands on in her mouth. This is one of the ways babies learn about their environment, and it doesn't suddenly change once she has her first birthday. "Whether it's munching on a friend's arm or biting while breastfeeding, 1-year-olds lead with their mouth," says Erin Floyd, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Atlanta.

And while the circumstances under which kids bite vary widely, the act isn’t malicious at this age, says Aubyn Stahmer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital, in San Diego. Learn more about the causes, with tips for how to get a toddler to stop biting.

Causes of Toddler Biting

It's important to understand the causes of your little one's newly aggressive stance. In a majority of cases, toddler biting happens for one of these reasons.

It helps her learn about the world. "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,” says Judith Garrard, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor of public health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in Minneapolis. Biting is usually just a form of sensory exploration.

It helps him communicate. Expressing feelings is just plain hard for a toddler because a 1-year-old can't make himself understood verbally. “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,” says Dr. Stahmer.

She's playing defense. Sometimes, she's got a legitimate gripe. Perhaps another child grabbed her bottle, tripped her, or pulled her hair. Not biting someone when you feel like doing it requires real self-control—and she doesn't have that yet. This explains why lots of toddler biting happens at daycare. 

He’s experimenting with cause and effect. Ever wonder why so many toys for toddlers are designed to make noise whenever they're touched? Kids this age are discovering which actions provoke reactions. So when he thinks, "I wonder what will happen when I bite my friend," he’s testing his impact on the world.

She’s overwhelmed. Overstimulation is a frequent cause of biting. A calm, well-rested toddler is less likely to use his teeth, so try following high-energy activities with quiet play or nap time.

Solutions to Stop Toddler Biting

Clearly, your 1-year-old has ample cause to believe that biting is a fine response to confusion or frustration. Your job is to steer him safely away from this behavior. Here are 10 tactics to stop toddler biting.

Respond right away. Use little words and a big tone. In a firm, serious (but not threatening) voice, say, “No biting! Biting hurts!" Then redirect her to something she can do, advises Katrina Reynolds, R.N., a pediatric nurse in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Although your child might not understand the actual words now, he soon will. Until then, your expression and tone of voice speak volumes.

Encourage a biter to use words. "Let your child know that when she gets angry or upset, there are alternatives to biting. She can say, 'I don't want to' or ask you for help in getting her message across," says Dr. Stahmer.

Validate his feelings.  Let your child know you understand his frustrations by saying things like, "I know it feels so bad when someone takes your toy!" Also give him a firm hug, which often helps children settle down.

Look for triggers. For example, if you notice that your child bares his teeth when a playmate touches his favorite toy, simply buying a duplicate can stop him in his tracks. 

Don't let him profit from attacks. He doesn't get to keep the toy that he got through aggressive means. If a strategy works, he'll keep doing it, says Gretchen Kinnell, author of No Biting and director of education and training at the Child Care Council of Onondaga County, in New York.

Pay more attention to the victim than to the culprit. In doing so, you model compassion and teach your child that she can't grab the spotlight by acting up. Praise good behavior. Pay your toddler with positive reinforcement when he doesn't resort to fisticuffs, Reynolds says ("You gave your friend a turn. Good for you!").

Closely monitor your biter. Sure, you'd rather spend playgroup socializing than playing kiddie cop. But you need to stay one step ahead of your child, anticipating and blocking her next bite. You should also remove toys that trigger conflicts.

Offer your child a biting substitute, such as a washcloth. With gentle reminders, a child who bites will chew on his washcloth rather than his playmate or parent when he's feeling testy or frustrated. 

Give her extra attention in difficult times. Chronic biting may also indicate that a child is in the midst of a difficult adjustment. Weaning, moving, or the arrival of a new sibling are changes that can shake up even the toughest tot. Says Dr. Stahmer, "Sometimes a little special attention from Mom or Dad is all it takes to nip biting in the bud."

Be a good role model. Your toddler takes her cues from you when it comes to interacting, so be a good role model. Avoid play biting, such as nibbling on her fingers or lightly chomping down on her arm. This sends a mixed message, and she may mimic these actions with other kids.

The Bottom Line

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.

Parents Magazine

Comments

Be the first to comment!