Successfully dealing with a child who bites

Blog Image for article Successfully dealing with a child who bites

Biting is an almost inevitable part of life for children in childcare. As you will have noticed, young children explore their world with their mouth and biting is a natural extension of that process. For children under three years the urge to bite arises from this natural curiosity and it can also be linked to feelings of stress, frustration and excitement.

In a childcare environment biting is an emotional and stressful experience for both the biter and the victim and for the parents of both children. If you're advised that your child has bitten another child, or has been bitten, make sure you work with your childcare provider to deal with the situation as quickly and effectively as you can.

Work closely with your service

Ask to read your service's policy on biting. Ask about any strategies the service uses to manage biting and where possible apply these strategies at home so that your child's biting is managed consistently regardless of whether they are at home or in child care. 

Dr Kaylene Henderson offers her advice for this situation and others relating to consistent management across home and day care settings.

In addition to working with the guidelines set by your child care service, watch your child at home and see if you can figure out the reasons why your child is biting, once you have worked out what motivates your child to bite you could try applying some of the solutions suggested below:

Reason for bitingPossible solution
TeethingProvide a wide range of chewable toys and teething rings for your child to bite on.

Offer hard food such as rusks and soothing foods such as cold apple wrapped in muslin to satisfy your child's urge to bite.
Natural curiosity/explorationRemove your child quickly from the arm/breast/hand or whatever it is they are biting and say ‘No biting! Biting hurts'.

Make sure your child understands that biting is not a game.

Help your child understand the difference between things that are okay to bite and those that are not okay to bite.
ExcitementRemove your child quickly from whatever it is they are biting and say ‘No biting! Biting hurts'.

Teach your child gentle ways of showing affection and excitement such as cuddling and stroking.
FrustrationWhen possible avoid situations that your child might find frustrating and/or intervene if you see them becoming frustrated.

Monitor your child when s/he is playing with other children, try and keep group play sessions short and step in and distract the children if they both want the same toy.

If a child is bitten, say ‘No biting! Biting hurts!' remove the child and do not return him or her to the play situation. Attend to the child who has been bitten.

Take some time to talk to your child after the biting has occurred and explain why they should not bite. Tell them you understand why they did the biting and if age appropriate give them some alternative ways of dealing with their frustration.
Attention seekingIn group situations ensure you give your child plenty of one-on-one attention.

In group situations try and get in to the habit of maintaining contact with your child by answering their questions and showing enthusiasm when they want to show you a particular toy or drawing etc.

If biting does occur, calmly remove your child from the situation say clearly and firmly ‘No Biting! Biting hurts' if possible leave them with another adult while you attend to the child who has been bitten.

It is important not to react too loudly or strongly in situations like this because your child will have got the attention they are seeking, even though it is negative.
PowerlessnessYounger/smaller children often feel overwhelmed in groups or when they are surrounded by older children and may bite as a way of gaining some control of the situation.

Be mindful of this and make sure the younger children in the group have their needs met so they don't feel the urge to bite.

Explain to the older children in the group how the younger children might be feeling and encourage them to play equal.

If necessary make separate play places for older and younger children to ensure everyone enjoys their playtime.
StressTry and identify what is causing your child to be stressed and be mindful or events which are likely to cause stress.

It might not be possible to remove your child's stress however you can help your child find ways to deal with their stress such as through energetic play and stories.

If biting still occurs remove them from the situation and if it helps, offer them something else to bite on.

Make sure you offer lots of love, cuddles and support to help your child manage their stress.


Positively managing biting

For some general ideas on how to manage a biting child consider employing some of the tactics listed below:

  • Encourage the use of words and teach children to practice saying ‘no' when they have their toy taken or when they are frustrated by something.
  • If possible follow the biter around for a day and provide suggestions for how to manage situations where the child might bite for example ‘Why don't you play with this toy while Melissa is playing with that one'.
  • Take note of who the biter usually bites, whether at home, in a group play environment in a playground, at a birthday party or in child care. When the biter approaches this child step in to make sure the situation is kept under control and teach the victim to be assertive and say ‘No biting!'
  • Make sure the biter has enough personal space and help them find a peaceful corner to do something quiet if you spot any behaviour which might lead to biting.
  • Use rewards to motivate children who are old enough to understand cause and effect.

When children do bite

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, no matter how proactive you are about preventing biting there is still a good chance that your child will bite or be bitten when s/he is in a group environment. When this does happen follow the course of action outlined below:

  • Act calmly, maintain a quiet and controlled voice, remove the biting child from the situation and say very firmly ‘No biting! Biting hurts'.
  • Take care of the child who has been bitten first, calm the child with cuddles and kind words and clean the bite area.
  • Once the victim is feeling better approach the child who did the biting and explain the effect of the biting. Encourage the biter to apologise to the victim and comfort them with cuddling and/or gentle strokes.
  • If the biter is old enough ask them to suggest ways they could avoid biting in the future and give them strategies for dealing with stressful or frustrating situations.

While biting is extremely stressful for everyone involved it is an almost inevitable part of life for children in group situations. As a parent the best you can do is consistently work at preventing biting and then work to manage the situation when it does occur. If your child is in a child care centre you should work with the carers to ensure a consistent approach is taken to tackle the problem.

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