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Setting Limits: Biting

Biting is very common. It is stressful for parents of the biter, and makes parents of the victim more upset than hitting, shoving or knocking down. There are many reasons why infants and young children begin to bite others:

  • Babies will start teething within the first year of life (3 to 12 months). Biting may be a sign of your baby's teething. Biting, or pressure on the gums, helps your baby relieve some of the discomfort. Try providing him with a teething ring or teether. However, make sure that you do not tie a teether around his neck because your baby could choke himself.

  • Babies bite to experiment with the taste, texture and response of their world.

  • Some children bite to gain attention from adults.

  • Some children will bite in self-defence when they are threatened.

  • Some children imitate biting, when they see another child bite.

  • Some children bite because it is an effective way to get what they want.

The best time to stop biting is when it first starts:

  • Make sure that no one laughs, or treats this as a game.

  • Get involved immediately. Stay calm, don't over-react or give a lengthy explanation. Over-reacting, for those children who bite because they want attention, actually increases biting.

  • First, comfort the child who has been bitten, and examine the degree of harm.

  • Then talk to the child who was the biter - with a clear message. Look into the child's eyes and speak calmly, but firmly, "I do not like it when you bite people!" For a child with a more limited vocabulary, just say, "No biting people!" You can point out, "Look. You hurt him and he's crying."

  • Encourage the child who was the biter to help apply first aid to the child who was bitten. If the skin is broken, wash the wound with warm water and soap. Apply an ice pack or cool cloth to help prevent swelling.

  • As things are calming down, it is sometimes helpful to follow up with a short explanation, "I know you were mad, but biting hurts. We don't bite people." Then have the biter comfort and apologize to the child who was bitten. "Tell Johnny, 'I am sorry that I hurt you. I won't do it again.'"

  • If your child bites again - and this is not unusual - pull her away from other children immediately. "You cannot play with children, if you are biting. Biting hurts!"

  • Never bite your child back, or wash his mouth out with soap. These actions generally do not stop the biting.

To prevent future biting:

  • Try to learn your child's cues about what triggered the bite in the first place. Think: Who? What? When? Where? How? For example, toddlers are more likely to be aggressive when they are tired, hungry, frustrated or overexcited. When you think through the situation, reduce the conditions that seem to have triggered the biting.

  • Supervise the biter closely during the week after the incident. You may be able to intervene early, and prevent a second attempt to bite.

Every child learns NOT to bite eventually. Some children take longer than others. Just be patient, firm and very direct.

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