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 email@example.com.