Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reader Question: Why do Toddlers’ Bite?

For this post, we’ll take a short detour from our scheduled posts to respond to one of our readers who asked: Why do toddlers bite? What are some ways to manage this behavior? My son is 14mos.

Since our reader did not explain why she was asking this question, we don’t know if the biting is related to teething (like biting down occasionally on mom or dad in hopes to relieve the discomfort and pressure on the gums) or aggression. Since biting due to teething comes up much earlier than 14 months, we’ll assume we need to talk about why toddlers may bite their parents or other children when they are angry, frustrated, or sad.

Reasons for Toddler Biting

Aggressive behavior in young children is one of the toughest challenges parents face. Hitting, biting, kicking, and throwing things are common ways toddlers express strong emotions. At 14 months, your son is at a particularly tough age because he is old enough to cause some damage when he becomes aggressive but he is a long way from being able to control his impulses. To understand more about tantrums and aggressive behaviors in older infants and toddlers, we refer you to our earlier series on the topic. When toddlers are prevented from exploring something that interests them or when they must stop doing something that makes them happy, they will become frustrated, angry, or sad. Because they have no way to control these raw and unfamiliar emotions, they lash out any way they can. For many children, especially children who are orally oriented (they put everything in their mouths), biting may be a satisfying weapon. For older children (2 ½ or 3 years old), a disciplinary measure like a “time out” or removal of a favorite toy might be helpful but at 14 months, your son is too young to respond to formal discipline. His impulses are too strong. He doesn’t have the self-control to stop himself when he starts to bite something. Think of it like this; let’s say your son is going down a playground slide and half-way down, you tell him to “stop right there!” It just won’t work. Once he’s started down the slide, his momentum will carry him all the way down to the end. So how would you stop him? You would have to reach over and pull him off the slide. Just as your toddler would need your help to stop going down the slide, your biting toddler needs your help to stop him from biting.

Tips for Dealing with Toddler Biting

1. Prevent biting by watching for your child’s early signals that he is stressed, angry, or sad. Act quickly to redirect or remove him from situations that may end with him biting.

2. Know the normal developmental milestones for toddlers. For example, toddlers have a hard time sharing things that really interest them and they tend to play in parallel rather than with other children. Parents, who expect toddlers to “play nice” with other children, may end up dealing with a lot of aggressive behavior including biting.

3. Biting happens so quickly that you may not be able to intervene fast enough to stop it but you must step in  as fast as you can. Gently but firmly restrain your child so that he can’t bite (or can’t bite again) and don't let him go until he is calm again. Don’t be afraid to make it clear that you are disappointed or upset but there is no reason to shout. Tell your son that you understand that he is angry or sad but he is not allowed to bite. Explain why. This may seem a little strange but your son is able to understand your words long before he can use words himself. Your toddler does want to please you. By showing and explaining your reaction, you will help him learn that biting will never help him get what he wants. Unfortunately, this is not a lesson that is learned right away and emotional control is many months away for your toddler. So, you'll need to go back to step 1 many times. Watch for "baby steps" toward less aggressive behavior as your toddler slowly learns to control himself.

Remember, your child is working very hard to learn from you every day. When you are able to help him understand his own emotions (while controlling your own), you are teaching him some of the most important lessons he will ever learn.

Next time: Back to Baby Behavior in the news!

1. A bite in the playroom: Managing human bites in child care settings. Paediatr Child Health. 2008;13(6):515-26.
2. Solomons HC, Elardo R. Biting in day care centers: incidence, prevention, and intervention. J Pediatr Health Care. 1991;5(4):191-6.
3. Lieberman AF. The Emotional Life of the Toddler. Simon and Schuster, Inc. 1993.


  1. Thank you Dr. Heinig.

    My 14-mo old is teething but we think his biting is primarily a symptom of displeasure with me or other children. He does not bite his dad.

    We have tried the time out but we see from reading your response that this is an inappropriate response for his age. I am quite hawkish -- I try to stick close enough so I can see his mouth -- when he is playing with others as he has bitten/tried to bite children his age. And of course, we sound like a broken record at home where he bites me. {Sigh}

    Thanks again.

  2. Just FYI- it is not surprising that your son is less likely to bite dad. Dads often allow a little more free range when it comes to exploration, resulting in fewer reasons to bite in frustration. Moms are often bitten because babies both feel safe enough to explore when moms are around and mom is more likely to put limits on all the fun. I think your son must be a scientist in the making. :) Your broken record will work! Just keep playing it. You should see some little changes in self control in the next few months. By the time your son is 18 months old, you'll find that he will be obviously "thinking" before he takes many actions. He'll still have a hard time controlling himself but he'll be trying!

  3. My son is 12 months and has been biting for the last month or so. His bites are never out of aggression and they actually seem to happen when he's very excited (happy excited). As soon as he buries his face in our leg or shoulder we say, "Don't bite" firmly and it almost always works. We do have to be diligent but it's been working for us. He at least seems to understand what it means.