My toddler bit his friend!

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  April 8, 2009 05:28 AM

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The first time my toddler's caregiver took me aside at pick-up time to talk about "the incident," when my little boy was about 18 months old, I was a little concerned, but not very much so. The bite hadn't broken the other child's skin, she said. The two boys were separated, mine was told to apologize, the other child was comforted, and the two tots had gone back to playing within about a minute, as if nothing had happened.

And then it happened again. And again. And... again.

I was mortified. I'd always worried about what I'd do if my child came home with a bruise or a bite; instead, it turned out that my son was the biter.

Toddlers often bite if they are overtired, frustrated, unable to communicate, or just plain angry, but typical behavior usually stops quickly (within a week or two) if you intervene.

Also, around age 2, most children start to cut molars, and the painful process can also trigger a very real and physical need to bite something. Anything. My now 4-year-old liked to chew on a frozen washcloth; a friend of mine used to give her kids those long green Bristle Blocks to gnaw on. My youngest boy? It didn't take too long to figure out what was going on: Apparently, if another child got too close too quickly, he'd tell him to back off by using his teeth instead of his words.

It actually makes sense. "When a toddler bites a friend, it most likely isn’t an act of aggression: It is simply an immature way of trying to get a point across, experimentation with cause and effect, or playfulness gone awry," Elizabeth Pantley, author of Gentle Baby Care and The No-Cry Sleep Solution, writes on Justmommimes.com.

It took lots of repetition, vigilance, and patience (as well as an awesome segment on Yo, Gabba Gabba called "Don't Bite Your Friends") to help our little man learn to say "I'm not ready yet!" or "No, thank you" and to walk away when his pals got too close.

In their book I Brake for Meltdowns: How to Handle the Most Exasperating Behavior of Your 2- to 5-Year-Old, Michelle Nicholasen and Barbara O'Neal point out that at age 2, children are quick to learn that biting can be a way to get your attention and generate a little excitement. Experts suggest that you try to intercept the child before he or she has a chance to bite and redirect him or her to another activity. If the bite has already occurred, make it clear that you are unhappy about it and do not want the child to do it again. (The old "bite him back" school of thought is not a good one, says Dr. Robert Needlman on DrSpock.com. "When you bite or slap a very young child, he's apt to keep it up, either as a fight or as a game or because he believes that if you are capable of such behavior, why shouldn't he be?" Dr. Needleman writes.)

Biting should stop being an issue by age 3, but older children can still act out in anger. What do you do if the bite breaks the skin or traumatizes the child who has been bitten?

"Have your child take an icepack to the victim and check on how she feels," Nicholasen and O'Neal suggest. "Your child can learn about consequences from looking at the bitten area and seeing the sad expression on her friend's/sibling's face." (The authors note that this is more effective for older children; a 2-year-old usually doesn't understand empathy yet.)

Do you have a biter? Or has your child been bitten? How did you handle it?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at lalphonse@globe.com.


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16 comments so far...
  1. Kids fight all of the time. Biting is no different for them than punching, kicking, or firing a machine gun. Battling kids need to be separated and calmly spoken to when physical conflicts erupt. A five minute timeout may help drive the point home. Never leave ammunition, rockets, or nuclear weapons within reach of toddlers. : )

    Posted by Ralston April 8, 09 11:42 AM
  1. Just after our daughter turned 11 months, she bit me. Intentionally. I was bathing her and had my arm around her stomach while she was sitting in the tub with her back toward me. She wasn't thrilled about the bath that night and turning away from me after realizing she wasn't getting out of it was sort of her way of letting me know.

    To keep her stable while I washed her, I put my arm around her and had my hand on her tummy. She looked back at me, then looked down and bit my arm. Hard. Hard enough, in fact, for me to ask, "How many teeth DO you have, Ms. Sharkey-McBitey-Pants?" (turns out there were 8). The bite accomplished what she wanted it to - as soon as I jerked my arm away, she scooted off to another end of the tub.

    She hasn't bitten me since, but I do hope that this wasn't just a preview of things to come...

    Posted by phe April 8, 09 11:46 AM
  1. Our 11 month old seems to bite out of excitement. Typically he goes for our clothing, in particular my shirt collar or buttons, but he does not have great control. Unfortunately he likes the reaction it gets. Slowly he is learning we don't like it,but an excited baby is an excited baby.

    Posted by Erik April 8, 09 12:42 PM
  1. What is with calling boys "little men?" They are not. Would you call your daughters "Little Women?" Or do "little men" become men, and girls, well, stay girls all of their life?

    Hi, Mark. I see your point, but I don't think it's that big of a deal. Yes, I've heard daughters called "Little Women" or "Little Ladies." And there's that book by Louisa May Alcott... For me, calling my youngest son "little man" doesn't mean he's a tiny grownup any more than calling my 10-year-old "Buddy" means that I think I'm his pal instead of his parent. -- LMA

    Posted by Mark April 8, 09 01:00 PM
  1. i had an 2yo foster child who bit. Family, friends, daycare were a united front however none of the advice above worked over a period of 2 long months. Child therapists couldn't help either. As Nicholasen and O'Neal noted toddlers cannot comprehend consequences.

    what made her stop was being fiercely bitten on the chest by a victim who had had enough - in that instant she learned empathy as well as no biting.

    Posted by Joanie April 8, 09 01:29 PM
  1. @phe, just a gentle suggestion: you may want to tell your daughter some variation of "no" firmly and pull her away next time she bites you or she might learn that biting is a good way to get what she wants. One of the keys with biting is to be as quick and firm about shutting down the behavior as possible.

    I also noticed the "little man" thing and it struck me as odd, but your point about "buddy" is good, too, Lylah. Then I remembered that I sometimes call my son "papito"--a term of endearment in Spanish that means "little daddy." Terms of endearment a bit weird when you think about them.

    Posted by debra winger April 8, 09 01:50 PM
  1. Children as young as two may not understand consequences, but neither do they understand logic, so the old, “how would you feel if your friend bit you?” The automatic response is “bad” and parents seem to think that solves the problem…until the child bites again. What children that young do understand is action/reaction. From when they were babies its how they communicated. I’m hungry, I cry (action) I get fed (reaction). I do something good (action) I get praise (reaction). I do something bad (action) I get punished (reaction).

    That being said, each child is different. Reaction must be something that the child does not want to happen again: a toy taken away, a treat denied, a TV show denied… and it may take a few tries to figure out what the correct button is. I’ve always had the three-step approach to discipline and it has never let me down and, if I may take a moment to brag, I now have a seventeen year old who has never been in trouble, never drank, never done drugs….and has given me her passwords for her myspace and facebook accounts of her own free will so, as she says, “I can check on her and make sure she’s safe on the internet”….

    The three steps:

    1. This is the way I expect you to behave (example: no biting)
    2. This is what will happen if you don’t behave the way I expect you to (no bedtime story)
    3. Follow through. She bites, no story. She doesn’t bite, story.

    yoshimi

    Posted by yoshimi April 8, 09 03:44 PM
  1. I also had a biter who seemed to hardly ever be angry or frustrated when he bit. He just seemed to have a high need for the oral stimulation. He was a happy baby by all accounts, but very active and curious. We tried several different consequences with him, but it just took time for this phase to go away. It lasted off and on for several months. It was very frustrating/embarassing for his parents, but it did eventually subside. He was breastfed until 18 months and is now 10 and still has a habit of biting/chewing on his jacket collar as well as shirts sometimes. So if you have a child who does bite for more than just a few times, just be patient, be consistent with consequences and remember this too shall pass.

    Posted by Momof3 April 8, 09 04:25 PM
  1. My middle son went through a period of eight or nine months starting when he was about 18 months old where he bit his playmates. Needless to say, I was mortified. I tried all of the usual tactics to try to change this behavior, but nothing seemed to work. I simply had to watch him like hawk when he was around kids his age and younger. He never bit anyone older. He did not bite out of aggression or anger - the incidents often happened while they were playing nicely or hugging hello. My pediatrician said it was perfectly normal, and that often when a child has trouble communicating he/she my do other things to get the attention of whomever they bite. Some scream, some giggle, unfortunately mine chose to bite. Whether or not that was the case, it did eventually stop once his speech improved. I am happy to say that he is truly a sweet little boy. He has the reputation for taking care of and nurturing all the younger kids at his Montessori school, and he can play a mean game of soccer! So, if you are going through this, don’t worry, it will eventually stop. Oh, and any other mothers who take it personally and give you the cold shoulder (which happened to me with one really up tight woman) just be thankful that that person isn’t a friend of yours – who needs friends like that? Good luck.

    Posted by Lee April 8, 09 04:42 PM
  1. Tell him that if he bites again, you'll smack the s%&t out of him, then do it when he does. I guarantee you, he'll never bite again

    So, what do you do later, after he smacks the s%&t out of a kid at school? --LMA

    Posted by sj April 8, 09 05:13 PM
  1. There is NEVER any reason to beat another person.#10 needs help.

    Posted by laginww April 9, 09 07:15 AM
  1. I have a 13 months old granddaughter, she was in my house couple of days ago playing with my niece with a jump rope. After some time my granddaughter wanted the jump rope for herself only and because my niece didn't let go of her end, she started biting the jump rope, very angry. It was funny to see her angry like that but at the same time I started thinking "how angry she could be to bite an object like that!". We (my son and I) just took it away from her and let her cry a little, maybe she understand that way that if she behave that way she can't have what she wants. Is that a normal behavior?

    Posted by Zory April 9, 09 08:21 AM
  1. There is ALWAYS a reason to beat another person. If you idiots think "time out" and "no more stories" are going to do your kids good, wait and see when they grow up not respecting any authority because no one has ever put them in their place. Kids need to know where the lines are that they do not cross. Oh and LMA, if the kid then turns around and hits someone at school, smack the s%&t out of him/her even harder until they learn what's acceptable behavior in society. When I got out of line as a kid, my father let me have it good and I learned respect. Today, I'm a productive member of society with a great job, great education and I'm even liberal minded and I RESPECT people! All you idiots with kids that let them off easy when they do something wrong are contributing to society's downfall.

    The fact that you wrote "I RESPECT people!" and followed it immediately with "All you idiots" makes it difficult to take your comment seriously...

    Posted by sj April 9, 09 11:19 AM
  1. @ debra winger: Thank you. I did, in fact, use our "not nice" tactic right after she bit me and moved off. Obviously, empathy is not in the cards at her age, but she does understand that - and when you tell her that something she's done isn't nice, she'll smile and gently pat your cheek and say, "Ni'?"

    But you're absolutely right in stating that the behavior needs to be stopped early on. We started the "not nice" piece during her super-slappy phase and it's worked well for other incidences as well. Fortunately, she hasn't bitten anyone since!

    As far as terms of endearment (since it's been brought up), we call her Little Bean or Wee Bean Feegle (after the Nac Mac Feegle - a character group created by aauthor Terry Pratchett). Yet, she is definitely not a bean nor is she a 6" high, brawling caricature of a Scotsman (though admittedly she can exhibit traits of the latter). I've also heard little children called "Little Men", "Little Man", "Little Lady" and so on. I don't think it's a big deal at all.

    Posted by phe April 9, 09 11:48 AM
  1. I didn't write "I respect idiots", what's your point???

    Posted by sj April 9, 09 03:54 PM
  1. phe: Had to laugh. For the longest time we called our oldest "Bean" too! My youngest often goes by the term "Little Mama". Any name _lovingly_ used to refer to your children is OK.


    Posted by bv April 10, 09 10:17 AM
 
16 comments so far...
  1. Kids fight all of the time. Biting is no different for them than punching, kicking, or firing a machine gun. Battling kids need to be separated and calmly spoken to when physical conflicts erupt. A five minute timeout may help drive the point home. Never leave ammunition, rockets, or nuclear weapons within reach of toddlers. : )

    Posted by Ralston April 8, 09 11:42 AM
  1. Just after our daughter turned 11 months, she bit me. Intentionally. I was bathing her and had my arm around her stomach while she was sitting in the tub with her back toward me. She wasn't thrilled about the bath that night and turning away from me after realizing she wasn't getting out of it was sort of her way of letting me know.

    To keep her stable while I washed her, I put my arm around her and had my hand on her tummy. She looked back at me, then looked down and bit my arm. Hard. Hard enough, in fact, for me to ask, "How many teeth DO you have, Ms. Sharkey-McBitey-Pants?" (turns out there were 8). The bite accomplished what she wanted it to - as soon as I jerked my arm away, she scooted off to another end of the tub.

    She hasn't bitten me since, but I do hope that this wasn't just a preview of things to come...

    Posted by phe April 8, 09 11:46 AM
  1. Our 11 month old seems to bite out of excitement. Typically he goes for our clothing, in particular my shirt collar or buttons, but he does not have great control. Unfortunately he likes the reaction it gets. Slowly he is learning we don't like it,but an excited baby is an excited baby.

    Posted by Erik April 8, 09 12:42 PM
  1. What is with calling boys "little men?" They are not. Would you call your daughters "Little Women?" Or do "little men" become men, and girls, well, stay girls all of their life?

    Hi, Mark. I see your point, but I don't think it's that big of a deal. Yes, I've heard daughters called "Little Women" or "Little Ladies." And there's that book by Louisa May Alcott... For me, calling my youngest son "little man" doesn't mean he's a tiny grownup any more than calling my 10-year-old "Buddy" means that I think I'm his pal instead of his parent. -- LMA

    Posted by Mark April 8, 09 01:00 PM
  1. i had an 2yo foster child who bit. Family, friends, daycare were a united front however none of the advice above worked over a period of 2 long months. Child therapists couldn't help either. As Nicholasen and O'Neal noted toddlers cannot comprehend consequences.

    what made her stop was being fiercely bitten on the chest by a victim who had had enough - in that instant she learned empathy as well as no biting.

    Posted by Joanie April 8, 09 01:29 PM
  1. @phe, just a gentle suggestion: you may want to tell your daughter some variation of "no" firmly and pull her away next time she bites you or she might learn that biting is a good way to get what she wants. One of the keys with biting is to be as quick and firm about shutting down the behavior as possible.

    I also noticed the "little man" thing and it struck me as odd, but your point about "buddy" is good, too, Lylah. Then I remembered that I sometimes call my son "papito"--a term of endearment in Spanish that means "little daddy." Terms of endearment a bit weird when you think about them.

    Posted by debra winger April 8, 09 01:50 PM
  1. Children as young as two may not understand consequences, but neither do they understand logic, so the old, “how would you feel if your friend bit you?” The automatic response is “bad” and parents seem to think that solves the problem…until the child bites again. What children that young do understand is action/reaction. From when they were babies its how they communicated. I’m hungry, I cry (action) I get fed (reaction). I do something good (action) I get praise (reaction). I do something bad (action) I get punished (reaction).

    That being said, each child is different. Reaction must be something that the child does not want to happen again: a toy taken away, a treat denied, a TV show denied… and it may take a few tries to figure out what the correct button is. I’ve always had the three-step approach to discipline and it has never let me down and, if I may take a moment to brag, I now have a seventeen year old who has never been in trouble, never drank, never done drugs….and has given me her passwords for her myspace and facebook accounts of her own free will so, as she says, “I can check on her and make sure she’s safe on the internet”….

    The three steps:

    1. This is the way I expect you to behave (example: no biting)
    2. This is what will happen if you don’t behave the way I expect you to (no bedtime story)
    3. Follow through. She bites, no story. She doesn’t bite, story.

    yoshimi

    Posted by yoshimi April 8, 09 03:44 PM
  1. I also had a biter who seemed to hardly ever be angry or frustrated when he bit. He just seemed to have a high need for the oral stimulation. He was a happy baby by all accounts, but very active and curious. We tried several different consequences with him, but it just took time for this phase to go away. It lasted off and on for several months. It was very frustrating/embarassing for his parents, but it did eventually subside. He was breastfed until 18 months and is now 10 and still has a habit of biting/chewing on his jacket collar as well as shirts sometimes. So if you have a child who does bite for more than just a few times, just be patient, be consistent with consequences and remember this too shall pass.

    Posted by Momof3 April 8, 09 04:25 PM
  1. My middle son went through a period of eight or nine months starting when he was about 18 months old where he bit his playmates. Needless to say, I was mortified. I tried all of the usual tactics to try to change this behavior, but nothing seemed to work. I simply had to watch him like hawk when he was around kids his age and younger. He never bit anyone older. He did not bite out of aggression or anger - the incidents often happened while they were playing nicely or hugging hello. My pediatrician said it was perfectly normal, and that often when a child has trouble communicating he/she my do other things to get the attention of whomever they bite. Some scream, some giggle, unfortunately mine chose to bite. Whether or not that was the case, it did eventually stop once his speech improved. I am happy to say that he is truly a sweet little boy. He has the reputation for taking care of and nurturing all the younger kids at his Montessori school, and he can play a mean game of soccer! So, if you are going through this, don’t worry, it will eventually stop. Oh, and any other mothers who take it personally and give you the cold shoulder (which happened to me with one really up tight woman) just be thankful that that person isn’t a friend of yours – who needs friends like that? Good luck.

    Posted by Lee April 8, 09 04:42 PM
  1. Tell him that if he bites again, you'll smack the s%&t out of him, then do it when he does. I guarantee you, he'll never bite again

    So, what do you do later, after he smacks the s%&t out of a kid at school? --LMA

    Posted by sj April 8, 09 05:13 PM
  1. There is NEVER any reason to beat another person.#10 needs help.

    Posted by laginww April 9, 09 07:15 AM
  1. I have a 13 months old granddaughter, she was in my house couple of days ago playing with my niece with a jump rope. After some time my granddaughter wanted the jump rope for herself only and because my niece didn't let go of her end, she started biting the jump rope, very angry. It was funny to see her angry like that but at the same time I started thinking "how angry she could be to bite an object like that!". We (my son and I) just took it away from her and let her cry a little, maybe she understand that way that if she behave that way she can't have what she wants. Is that a normal behavior?

    Posted by Zory April 9, 09 08:21 AM
  1. There is ALWAYS a reason to beat another person. If you idiots think "time out" and "no more stories" are going to do your kids good, wait and see when they grow up not respecting any authority because no one has ever put them in their place. Kids need to know where the lines are that they do not cross. Oh and LMA, if the kid then turns around and hits someone at school, smack the s%&t out of him/her even harder until they learn what's acceptable behavior in society. When I got out of line as a kid, my father let me have it good and I learned respect. Today, I'm a productive member of society with a great job, great education and I'm even liberal minded and I RESPECT people! All you idiots with kids that let them off easy when they do something wrong are contributing to society's downfall.

    The fact that you wrote "I RESPECT people!" and followed it immediately with "All you idiots" makes it difficult to take your comment seriously...

    Posted by sj April 9, 09 11:19 AM
  1. @ debra winger: Thank you. I did, in fact, use our "not nice" tactic right after she bit me and moved off. Obviously, empathy is not in the cards at her age, but she does understand that - and when you tell her that something she's done isn't nice, she'll smile and gently pat your cheek and say, "Ni'?"

    But you're absolutely right in stating that the behavior needs to be stopped early on. We started the "not nice" piece during her super-slappy phase and it's worked well for other incidences as well. Fortunately, she hasn't bitten anyone since!

    As far as terms of endearment (since it's been brought up), we call her Little Bean or Wee Bean Feegle (after the Nac Mac Feegle - a character group created by aauthor Terry Pratchett). Yet, she is definitely not a bean nor is she a 6" high, brawling caricature of a Scotsman (though admittedly she can exhibit traits of the latter). I've also heard little children called "Little Men", "Little Man", "Little Lady" and so on. I don't think it's a big deal at all.

    Posted by phe April 9, 09 11:48 AM
  1. I didn't write "I respect idiots", what's your point???

    Posted by sj April 9, 09 03:54 PM
  1. phe: Had to laugh. For the longest time we called our oldest "Bean" too! My youngest often goes by the term "Little Mama". Any name _lovingly_ used to refer to your children is OK.


    Posted by bv April 10, 09 10:17 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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