Biting in the early years is not different from hitting, throwing things, pushing, pulling hair or any other aggressive behaviour. Some biting can be benign and transient, but repeated biting has a deeper emotional cause that has to be addressed. A frustrated toddler does not have a rich language and is likely to use her body to express herself and unleash hurts.
Mainstream professionals tend to see biting as normal because they look for evidence in day care, where children are more likely to feel disconnected and frustrated. There is much more biting in daycares and group settings than there is in children who spend their days with their parents. However, biting does occur, to a lesser degree, in youngesters at home. The nuclear family is not an easy setting for parents to meet their children’s needs and stress does occur for both mothers and children. But when a toddler who is cared for by her parents at home bites, the reasons are easy to detect and to alleviate.
A child is always innocently pursuing her needs. Whatever she does is rooted in a valid reason or has a specific and worthy purpose. She could be hungry, testing cause and effect, teething, imitating another child, or trying to generate a scream for the fun of it. She could also be reacting to food. Many youngsters who choose aggressive behaviours are reacting to wheat, dairy, soy, sugar, food additives or other allergens. If your child is biting excessively or otherwise aggressive, check her for allergies through hair analysis or muscle testing and study the Feingold diet. 1
Why Toddlers Sometimes Bite
Instead of focusing on the biting, focus on finding the underlying reasons your toddler needs to bite. I don’t mean what she wants at the moment (lollies, attention, toy) but the reason she resorts to expressing herself by biting. Look for frustration, a feeling of disconnectedness, jealousy, helplessness or a need for love, affection and autonomy. Take care of the underlying cause and the symptom will vanish.
Sometimes a toddler escalates to biting after she sees that we tolerate violations of the body and the environment. She is simply participating in what she is observing. Notice how you treat yourself and model total respect of your own and your child’s body.
The need to bite may be also the result of feeling too restricted. Expecting a child to restrain herself (be quiet, abide by our needs or be polite) can lead to rage and a sense of helplessness. Biting can then be the most effective expression of rage.
Even with the most responsive of parents, a toddler often feel powerless and frustrated. A dramatic reaction to her bite can satisfy her need to feel powerful. In my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, you can read a whole chapter about children’s need for autonomy and power and how to meet that need and prevent a lot of difficulties.
It is much easier to prevent biting than to stop it once it starts. A toddler who feels connected, loved, autonomous and at peace is not likely to bite. She has no need for it. Therefore the first path of prevention is respecting your toddler’s autonomous inner guidance, avoiding undue expectations and restrictions and staying close and connected. This may include avoiding peer play, which is often much too difficult for young children.
Many loving parents take attachment and respect to mean permissiveness and lack of leadership on their part. Prevent biting by providing a clear leadership and by respecting your own body and your child’s autonomy and body. Autonomy does not mean getting everything one wants. Instead, it means being in charge of oneself in response to whatever occurs.
Another way to prevent biting is to reduce stress and slow down. Young children prefer a simple life. Too much commotion, traveling and interruption disconnects them from the sense of belonging. In the early years a child is creating deep connection with you, his first love. Stay at home more, in your own yard, or take walks in nature and with a few friends. Play calming music, and do peaceful things rather than activities of agitation. If you have a child who thrives on being physically active, provide for him in your own yard and home as much as possible and use nature for larger experiences.
Reacting to the First Bite
When a child tries to bite for the first time, your swift, clear, physical and caring response can prevent a repeat performance. Many parents hesitate and react too slowly. Trying to be nice, they forget to lead the way. A mother said to me, “I tell him nicely not to bite and that it hurts, but he still bites.”
Toddlers learn best with their bodies first. Once they have a physical experience, they may respond to verbal reminders. Be respectful and kind but also physical, swift and clear. Rush and scoop the child (like you would had she run toward the street) while saying something like, “Whoops, oh no!” in a dramatic tone. The first time can easily be the last if your response is clear. If you try words first and then, when the child is deeper into her action you intervene, she will do it again. She does not take it seriously if you don’t. Once you intervene, be kind, loving and connected. Do not judge and preach. Instead, make eye contact, smile, hug, and validate, “Did you have enough of playing with Lili?” Or, “Show me how you feel with this doll.” She may be hungry, or she may need to show you her feelings or just stay close to you.
Biting the child to “teach” him what it feels like confuses and hurts him. Your action tells him that this is something to do. You are doing it. His reaction is going to be pain, dismay and fear, since you are the one he relies on for unconditional love and safety. Giving a mini lecture to a toddler is not beneficial either. All the child can hear is, “Dad is not pleased with me. I am bad.” The result is self-doubt and therefore often more biting.
With an older and more verbal child you can explain briefly and with a loving eye contact, “This hurts, but you can tell me how you feel or show me with this doll.” If she tries to keep biting, give her something she can bite and say, “Here, you can use this.”
I wouldn’t say “No biting.” Not only is it negative, commanding and disconnecting, but in addition, labeling the child’s action gives it legitimacy. She gets the message that it is a known and valid phenomenon. Words form human memory; it is easier to let go and forget what is not labled.
Being physically close prevents most difficulties with young children. Yet, if you have more than one child such closeness is not always possible. Do your best to make room for both (or three) children close to you. Sit to breastfeed on a large couch, hold a hand of a child who cannot sit on you, and connect with touch and with words like, “As soon as the baby falls asleep, we will read together. I am looking forward to being with you.”
Meeting the Needs
Whatever a child does tells us what she needs. If a child bites because she likes the effect, we can offer other activities that satisfy that need. Let her turn the light on and off or the volume of the stereo high and low; give her a toy that squeaks when squeezed; let her push a wagon, spray the yard with the hose, or produce other dramatic effects.
There is never a need to scold or be upset with the child. She has no bad intention at all. She is doing the best she can to take care of herself. She does need guidance, a meeting of her needs, a safe outlet for her frustration, love and affection.
Be your child’s ally. My children did not bite, hit, break things etc., not because they are angels, but because they were content, and because my responses to their initiatives were quick, physical, peaceful and clear. They trusted my guidance because I was always on their side. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” I would move quickly (even with baby in arms) and gently stop the action and offer a solution, “I see that you want to bang the floor with the broom; here, you can bang on the porch.” If I could not offer a solution, I would still be there to stop the action physically and then validate feelings if needed. For example, if my toddler wants to take a toy I don’t intend to buy from the store, I would say, “I see that you love this doll-house and wish to take it home. I understand how you feel. Would you like to watch it a bit longer? I can wait.”
This approach allows the child to see Mum and Dad as her allies. “She saw what I needed and provided it for me.” Or, “When I pulled books out of the cabinet and tore them, she brought me a huge pile of bigger books (magazines) so I can tear them. Mum understands my needs.” If there was no solution, she still experiences, “mum understands my feelings.” The child does not interpret what she wants as bad, just not doable.
If your child bites in a play group, she is too frustrated and would be better off without the group. There is no rush to get children into peer experience, which is unnatural and creates unnatural social difficulties. Letting her play with adults or with one older and caring child often dissolves the biting.
Siblings biting is similar to the play group challenge, only the setting cannot be changed. The child who bites a sibling is obviously frustrated and needs more connection with adults. Knowing that this is the cause can help you to be compassionate, validating and maybe more creative in finding ways to spend one-on-one time with each child.
All these needs are variations on feeling helpless. To give the child an outlet to express her need for power, play “Power Games.”2 Power games are initiated by your children and are often stopped by you. If your child is running away from the nappy or pajamas, instead of stopping her intent, play with it. You can say, “Oh no, she ran away again,” run after her, barely catch her, then let her slip again and repeat the show. Children start many such games. Be attentive and open-minded. Or, you can play variations on Simon Says, and follow your child’s lead. Getting satisfaction playfully, he will have no need to bite or to gain power in other ways.
Let your child feel satisfied and bring the game to an end when she is satiated. If you
initiate the end of the game, the child will perceive you as having the power all along and the healing and joy will be lost.
If your child is already a biter, not only can you provide for the underlying needs, but also be alert to prevent the biting. You know what sets your child off or what circumstances are more likely to bring up her biting. Catch it before it happens. After a period of time without biting, if she also has her deeper needs met, the child will forget about it.
Meeting the child’s needs for closeness, affection and human connection are at the heart of preventing all types of aggression and emotional difficulties. Stay close, responsive and delighted by your child, and his happiness will keep him at peace with himself and with others.
1. The Feingold Program is based on the work of Ben F. Feingold, MD, who was Chief of Allergy at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco. He discovered the connection between salicylate and aggression as well as other food allergens. The chemicals that occur naturally in such fruits as apples, oranges, berries, grapes, and others contain salicylate, the naturally occurring, aspirin-like chemical that Ben Feingold discovered can be a major offender for a child who happens to be sensitive to it.