Ouch! Your toddler bit you again. Worse, he’s biting the other children at daycare. Toddlers bite for many different reasons – sensory overload, teething pain, even affection. Here’s how to address this piercing behavior.
by Linda Crisalli
I have been an early childhood educator and a mom for around four decades, and I can tell you that there’s almost nothing that stresses out parents and childcare providers more than dealing with a toddler who is a chronic biter.
The mark it leaves is universally recognizable. If it breaks the skin it can easily become infected, and it really hurts.
Children who bite at daycare are often expelled because their teachers and the other children’s parents have given the ultimatum, “It’s either him or me.” I have known toddlers who have been dis-enrolled from multiple daycares, and their parents were forced to take time off from work to find another provider.
Often the biters’ parents are told that their children have “anger” problems, that they are emotionally disturbed, or that the biting is a result of poor parenting styles or a dysfunctional home. But for most toddlers, this simply isn’t true.
Nobody comes into the world hardwired with the ability to tolerate frustration and control emotional impulses. These are things which must be learned. Like any other learned behavior, this involves a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process.
Aggressive behaviors in general and biting in particular are very common behaviors for toddlers, who are learning both social skills and language. They cannot always express their feelings, needs, or wants in words.
Over the years as a teacher, childcare center director, parent, and grandparent, I have discovered that there are several different reasons why toddlers tend to bite, most of which are easy to address whether the biting takes place at home, at daycare, or both.
● Too much happening all at once. Some children are particularly sensitive to what I call “sensory overload.” If the classroom environment at the childcare center is overly crowded with sights, sounds and smells, it can be very stressful for them. It is often helpful for the biter, as well as the other children, to reduce the environmental clutter.
● Defense of privacy. Young children (and adults for that matter) are uncomfortable when their personal space is invaded. You might suggest to your toddler’s childcare provider to make sure that her favorite toys are not stored in a way that she can easily get cornered or crowded by the other children.
● Affection. Lots of little ones bite in an effort to show affection. You might want to consider avoiding kissing your partner with your lips parted in your child’s presence while you are dealing with biting.
● Teething pain. It is not uncommon for young children to bite when they are teething because their gums are tender. Try giving your little one a teething toy that has been chilled in the refrigerator or a cool moist washcloth to chew. If your child uses a pacifier or a baby bottle, this is probably not the best time to try to break him of the habit.
● Health problems. Be sure to watch for signs of tooth decay, an abscess in the mouth, a sore throat, or an earache. These often result in biting.
● Hunger. It could be that your child is going through a growth spurt and she is hungry. Be sure to monitor her diet and make sure she eats frequently enough.
● Discomfort. Some young children respond poorly to physical discomfort of any kind. If your child is going through a biting stage, it can be really helpful to make sure that his clothing fits properly, and that he isn’t too cold, too hot, too hungry, too full, too tired, etc.
When only one other child gets bitten
If your child tends to be selective about whom he bites, it’s a good idea to ask his caretaker to do some objective observations to figure out the dynamics between the two children. Often a pattern will emerge that is easy to change and alleviate the problem.
At the very least, insist that the daycare provider do whatever they can to avoid close contact between the two children when it is reasonable to do so, such as sitting in circle time, eating or sleeping next to one another.
Childcare providers sometimes forget that the identity of a child who behaves aggressively is confidential information. It’s a good idea to remind them of this when you are working together to solve a biting problem.
Happily, most toddlers grow out of biting as they mature and acquire language and social skills. Try not to worry, and remember that this too shall pass.
Linda Crisalli has extensive education, training, and over 40 years experience working with and in behalf of young children and their families. Linda lives in the Seattle area, near her two grown children and four precious grandchildren.© Photo by Ksenia Kozlovskaya | Dreamstime.com