Why toddlers bite and what parents and caregivers can do to stop it

Learn 10 reasons toddlers may bite and explore some options for how to stop the behaviour.

Your toddler has bitten a child and the other child is crying in pain. You feel all eyes are on you and your child, and you feel bad for the other child, but what do you do?

Michigan State University Extension suggests that understanding some of the reasons a young child might bite can be helpful, for a start. One reason young children bite is frustration. The young child cannot express with words “I don’t like that” or “It’s mine” and so forth.  It is helpful for parents to look at what was going on at the time. Was the child trying to communicate some of those feelings by biting?

According to ZERO TO THREE, Chew on this: Responding to Toddlers Who Bite (June 5, 2008), other reasons could come from wanting to see cause and effect. Was the child trying to see the effect biting has on others? How about exploring and learning ­­– ­is the child trying to feel how it feels? Very young children explore with their mouths. Is the child teething? Was the child trying to alleviate the pain by biting? Still another possibility, was the child mimicking biting behavior they have experienced through play or have witnessed? Was the child having difficulty coping with uncomfortable feelings? Was he or she tired, bored or anxious? Finally, was the child playing and perhaps became overwhelmed, not knowing how to share, take turns or communicate their wishes?

Biting can have serious consequences and often the child is punished. Adult reactions can be harsh and the child may suffer playmate isolation. So to more clearly understand what to do, a parent or caregiver can start by observing the child and looking for patterns. Notice where, when and who the child bites.  Once a pattern becomes evident, measures can be taken to curb the biting.

For example:

  • If you recognize the child bites when frustrated, you can teach the child to communicate verbally or to sign “mine,” “no,” “stop” and so forth.
  • If you think the child is biting due to being overwhelmed with other children, join the child on the floor and model how to join in play with other children by taking turns, communicating and sharing.
  • If you believe the child is biting to discover cause and effect, let the child know it hurts and teach other cause/effect situations such as waving when he or she goes bye-bye.
  • If you believe the child is biting for stimulation, offer teething toys or textured snacks.  
  • If tiredness is suspected, offer opportunities to rest.
  • If hunger is suspected, offer more healthy snacks.
  • If the child may be bored, offer different toys or change the environment.
  • If you suspect the child is anxious, talk to him/her about changes coming up in the routine and help the child learn words or signs to avoid confusion and uncertainty. 

Guiding your toddler is very important, and with loving patience, the biting episode will pass.

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