Biting the hand—and everything else

Dear Mr. Dad: My toddler (17 months old) has been biting his three-year-old sister at home for the past week or so. Now I’ve learned from his daycare provider that he’s biting other children there as well. She’s not happy about that, of course, and I’m worried they’ll kick him out. I’ve tried lecturing him and giving him timeouts, but nothing works. What can I do to help him stop this behavior?

A: First of all, it’s important to understand that biting is a pretty normal behavior for a toddler. Children often bite when they’re tired, teething, jealous, or just plain frustrated. And sometimes they’re conducting little science experiments, wondering what would happen if they bit something—or someone—new. It’s an odd (to us anyway) but pretty effective way of exploring and testing out the world around them.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. There’s no question biting hurts, and other children shouldn’t be subjected to it. But many parents see biting as a pathological behavior, the first step in a life of crime. You can count on the parents of the kids your boy is biting to take a very dim view indeed. But in short, biting is neither something to encourage, nor an indication that you’re raising Satan.

At seventeen months, your son is really too young for lectures, and even timeouts won’t have much effect on impulse behaviors of this kind. The good news is that if you make a concerted effort to deal with this behavior right now, you should be able to put an end to it within a few days or weeks.

Let’s start with some of the basics. Keep a particularly close eye on him while he and his sister play together at home. Whenever you catch him biting, say “No bite!” very firmly. If you can catch him just before he chomps down, so much the better. If he’s already sunk his teeth into someone, move him away from the other child immediately. On the other hand, when he is playing nicely, give him praise and positive attention.

If you pay close attention, you may be able to identify the cause of the behavior. Are there any patterns to his biting? For example, does he start biting when other kids take his stuff—or at least stuff he wants for himself? Does he bite when you know he’s he’s tired. If so, your first line of defense is to make sure he’s on a regular nighttime routine, that he gets a good night’s sleep, and that his other daytime activities don’t interfere with nap time. Could your baby be biting because he’s teething and in pain? Try giving him teething rings (as long as they’re not made of soft plastic, which may be a health hazard), frozen bagels, or other palliatives to sooth the pain.

Now, let’s talk about the other issue: your daycare provider. Ask her to do the same kind of investigative work you did at home: are they’re certain situations or times of day when biting is more common? Ask the daycare provider if she has any successful ways of dealing with biting and be sure to share any of the techniques that work for you at home. That way, she’ll be able to reinforce what you’re doing by implementing the same strategies there. At the same time, you’ll be letting her know that you’re taking the problem seriously and working on it. That can buy you some time and give her something to tell any concerned parents of bitten children.

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