Children and biting

Biting is quite common in young children. It usually passes when they learn other ways to express themselves.

It can hurt and be frightening for the child who is bitten.

But it can also frighten the child who bites. They can feel powerful because of the strong reaction it gets from others, but it can be scary because they can feel out of control.

Whatever the cause of the biting, you need to:

  • respond quickly, firmly and calmly
  • show your disapproval without anger or over-reacting
  • remove the child from the situation
  • help them find another outlet for feelings.

This page looks at some of the reasons children bite, and what you can do when a child bites or has been bitten.

Experimental biting

Your baby or toddler might experiment with biting for the following reasons:

  • as a part of exploring things with their mouths
  • to communicate their feelings - until they learn words
  • during breastfeeding
  • as a game - if they get a big reaction.

What you can do

Usually, babies and toddlers soon learn not to bite.

You can help your child by doing the following things:

  • don’t let them think it’s funny or a game
  • say firmly: ‘No! Biting hurts’
  • remove them quickly from the breast or arm or whatever they are biting
  • if they are teething, give them things they can safely bite on, such as teething rings.

Biting from frustration

Your child might bite when they get frustrated because they are too young to control their impulses or use other ways to cope.

For example, children under three are not usually ready to play in a cooperative way with others. They might bite or hurt another child who takes their toy.

If biting gets a strong response they may see it as successful and try it again.

What you can do

Young children need you to understand and help them to manage their feelings.

You can help your child by doing the following things:

  • keep group play to short times and small groups - watch for times when two children might want the same toy and step in first to distract them
  • try to avoid situations your child can’t cope with
  • supervise children closely - however a child might still get in a quick bite
  • if your child is young, redirect them away from the situation rather than try to explain your reasons - they are too young to understand, and too many words can confuse them.

Biting when feeling powerless

Often it’s the youngest child in a family who bites.

Older children can seem to talk better, be stronger, and be more able to get what they want. The youngest child can feel small and powerless.

In groups, a less powerful child can discover that biting is a way of getting some power.

What you can do

You can help your child by doing the following things:

  • explain to older children how a younger child might feel - get their help to make things more equal
  • make sure the needs of each child are met
  • make separate play places for older and younger children if you need to
  • if your child has already bitten, tell them it’s not OK to bite and remove them from the situation - keep them with you for a while before letting them return - read about time in and guiding your child's behaviour.

Biting under stress

Your child might bite when they are feeling very upset or angry and they don’t know how to handle their stress. Biting can be a way to show their distress and pain.

Young children don’t understand how they are feeling. They just act.

What you can do

You can help your child by doing the following things:

Try to find out what is causing the stress

If you know what causes the stress, you can remove or lower it. Watch what happens just before the biting happens. For example, if your child bites when another child comes into their space or takes their toy, help your child safely protect their space.

If they have enough words, you could suggest they say: ‘Please move away’. 

Or you could ask your child: ‘What can we do to stop Anna from taking your toy? What other toy could you give her to play with?’

Plan ahead

Planning ahead can help you avoid situations where you know your child might bite. Offer as much love and affection as you can at other times to help them feel secure.

Ask other parents to support you

You may need to ask other parents to support you to help your child stop biting. Ask that they be firm but matter of fact: ‘No, we don’t bite’.

Help children find other ways to express their feelings

You could do this through play and stories.

Don’t bite back

This can really scare your child. It teaches the very thing you don’t want them to learn.

If your child is bitten

Your child might react strongly if they are bitten. This may not because they are in lots of pain, but because it can get lots of attention.

It’s important to comfort your child if they have been bitten, but to not over-react.

You can help your child by doing the following things.

  • comfort them briefly - then encourage them to go straight back to normal play
  • if they are old enough, help them find ways to protect themselves that don’t hurt the child who bit them
  • if they are very young and not able to protect themselves, make sure they are kept safe.

You might worry that a bite could transfer a disease to your child.

A bite can leave a bruise, but it doesn’t usually break the skin - so there is no chance for viruses or bacteria to enter your child’s body.

Some parents think that a child who has bitten another child at child care should be excluded. This reaction is understandable - but it’s best in the long run if the centre provides specific support for the child who has bitten, and makes sure other children are protected.

More information

Find out more, including where you can get support to help understand children and biting, on the following pages: 

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017