Charlie Bit My Finger: What To Do When Toddlers Bite

by Tara Saltzburg

Hey There,

So, I have a biter, ladies and gentleman! Ah, one of the many joys of parenting. Many of us have been through it, but for first time moms (or moms that missed out the first time or two around), it can be unnerving when a child starts to bite.

Ouch, Charlie. That really hurt!


So apparently, it's not uncommon or unusual. I mean, Charlie does it. 

But what is it that makes a kid bite? More importantly, how do you stop it?

We did some research and found great insight into the world of kid bites. And we found some tips to get Edward Cullen to chill.

Why Do Toddlers Bite?

According to an article by Parenting, unlike infants who bite primarily for exploration or because of teething pain, toddlers like to gnaw for other reasons:

  • They're curious
  • They want attention
  • They're trying to show affection
  • They're hungry
  • They're anxious or stressed
  • They're scared or defending themselves
  • They're bored
  • They're mad or unhappy
  • They're overstimulated or overtired
  • They're reacting to changes in their environment
  • They're teething

Toddlers lack language skills necessary to communicate needs or strong feelings like anger or frustration. Dr. Paul Horowitz, a pediatrician at Discovery Pediatrics in Valencia, California says "...they don't have the language necessary to express themselves, so they hit, have a tantrum, or they bite. So, for most children, once they gain the vocabulary necessary to express themselves, the likelihood that they will bite decreases."

When is Biting Normal?

According to Parenting, biting is most common in children between 12 and 36 months old, when developmental theorists believe that it serves as a way to express emotions, and when most kids are suddenly exposed to many more kids at daycare.  

The American Psychological Association, states that between one third and one half of all toddlers in daycare are bitten by another child (studies indicate that it may be closer to one half).

They also shared this incredibly creepy picture:

Scary biting toddler

Dr. Claire B. Kopp, Ph.D., author of Baby Steps: A Guid to Your Child's Social, Physical, Mental and Emotional Development in the First Two Years, suggests that, "a toddler who resorts to hitting or biting once or twice a month is not at risk. The behavior should not be ignored, but addressed in low-key ways. If a toddler hits and/or bites several times a week, that is cause for concern."

Children typically acquire enough language skills to express their feelings by 3 or 4, and according to Dr. Kopp, they will turn to hateful words and/or ignoring each other (instead of biting), to diffuse their anger or frustration, so the problem should naturally clear up by then. A child frequently biting into the preschool years may be cause for concern. 

Dealing With The Biter

The shock of a bite can be scary for everyone -- the child who was bitten, parents, teachers, and even the biter. 

“These are small children with limited language who are usually just as frightened as the bitee,” says Jana Martin, PhD, a member of APA’s Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice. “Adults need to use telegraphic speech — short and clear sentences — to help them make sense of the incident.”

According to Dr. Horowitz, here's what you want to do immediately post-bite:

  • Remain calm.
  • Let her know this is unacceptable, telling the biter, "We don't do that" in a firm tone.
  • Put her in a time-out depending on the age of the child. Time-outs can be used for kids as young as 1 (and should last one minute per year of age), but may not be truly effective until some time after age 2.
  • Re-direct the biter if they're too young for a time-out.

Here's What NOT to do:

  • Don't try to explain why biting is wrong; it's likely beyond the child's comprehension.
  • Don't scream at the child -- and of course, never hit.
  • Don't bite the child in attempt to show him that it hurts.
  • Don't try to get the biter to empathize with his victim; it's too abstract of a concept, says Dr. Horowitz.
  • Don't try to force an apology. The old-fashioned 'Hug your sister and say you are sorry,' teaches a child to lie, and is more likely to cause further anger than forgiveness.
  • Don't make a big deal out of it. "Depending on how you handle it, you can actually reinforce the behavior," says Dr. Horowitz. "By giving the biting too much attention -- positive or negative -- you can lead your child to bite again."

Dealing With The Bitee

"It’s easy to get caught up in work with biters, but don’t let them hog the post-bite spotlight," warns child psychologist Robert Walrath, PsyD, an associate professor of counseling at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H. "Instead, lavish attention on victims, not only to console them, but also to assure them that they didn’t do anything wrong — and to send a message." Empathize with the child and let them know you are genuinely concerned.

"If the biter is older than 2, you might also advise the child to help comfort the victim," adds Stanley Goldstein, PhD, author of the book, Troubled Children/Troubled Parents (Atheneum, 1979). This helps teach empathy and also focuses attention on the victim, but should only be done if the victim and biter are open to it, and if an adult is present to ensure the victim’s safety."

Interaction Between Parents

So should we chat about this, er?

According to Parenting, there's no etiquette guide here. It might depend on how well you know the other parent, how effectively the teacher handled it (if it happened at school), and if it's the first or tenth time it's happened. "If you do decide to address it with the parents, make sure you do so without anger and without placing blame," says Dr. Kopp.

Chill, Edward Cullen: Preventing Biting

"Adults should pay close attention to biting circumstances to pinpoint what specifically seems to trigger bites — other children grabbing toys, perhaps, or the chaos and noise of lunch time. Once you know what prompts the biting, you can step in to ease the tension before it occurs," says Goldstein.

"Another trusty preventive technique is distraction: Small children will often forget they’re angry or frustrated if you just redirect them — and praise them for participating in new activities," says child psychologist John Marr, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Arkansas.

Although we, admittedly, have thought about it, experts agree that biting a child back to show them that it hurts, is not a good preventative measure. “But, really, what biting back does is model the very behavior you’re trying to extinguish,” says Marr. “Kids this age are sponges for various types of social learning, and they don’t yet have the problem-solving and social skills to avoid biting. It’s up to adults to show them the right ones.”

Here are a few books you may want to introduce if you're dealing with a tiny vampire. 

Good luck!

XO, Tara

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Tara Saltzburg

About The Author

Tara Saltzburg founded Westyn Baby when her son was an infant battling severe eczema. She was always on the lookout for products that would minimize the irritation and ease his discomfort, but safe, non-irritating pajamas proved difficult to find. Tara started Westyn Baby in 2016 with a mission to create better, safer sleepwear for kids - sleepwear that's exceptionally soft, flame-retardant free, sensitivity-friendly, and durable. Read more about WB sleepwear.

Tara was born and raised at the NJ shore and attended Penn State University, where she played soccer and discovered her love of mountain life. She is a mom of one boy and hopes to eventually have enough kids to form some sort of athletic team. She and her family currently reside in Central Pennsylvania and spend the summers in Stone Harbor, NJ.