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Two weeks ago I was looking after my cousin’s 19-month-old daughter. Before she left for the day we were both sitting on her couch catching up. Mara, her daughter, crawled along the back of the couch until she had situated herself behind me. I hadn’t even noticed she was there until I felt tiny teeth press into my back. “Ouch!” Alarmed, I jumped up and looked back at her. Mara sat there staring at me or into my soul, really. Wide eyed and amazed she began to squeal and clap. I wasn’t sure which was worse, that she bit me or that she clearly enjoyed it. Embarrassed my cousin ran to assist me, “Oh no! I’m so sorry she’s been biting like crazy lately!”

Mara began to bite frequently a few weeks prior to my visit. According to my cousin this was the reason she had asked me to care for her as opposed to her usual babysitter. “Linda’s much better with Mara than you are but I know you won’t judge me because you’re family.” After choosing to ignore the comment, that stung worse than baby teeth, I advised her that neither she nor her child care provider were at fault for Mara’s biting. Biting is a completely natural part of infant and toddler development. While this may provide little comfort for the parents of biters or their victims the best way to handle biting is to understand why children bite and how to prevent it.

Either in a home or in a center, biting happens. Regardless of whether your child is the biter or the bitten there is always valid cause for concern. Biting is unlike hitting or kicking because it is not usually intended to be a violent act. Infants and toddlers use biting as a form of communication because they don’t have the ability to properly express themselves.  Incredibly, there is a certain type of bite for each of the three developmental stages infants and toddlers experience.

  • Exploratory: Early – 15 months
  • Action/Reaction: 9 – 20 months
  • Purposeful: 18 months and up

When infants bite it’s actually called “mouthing”. They are in the exploratory stage and they are using their oral senses to understand the world around them. For children who are teething, applying pressure to the gums is comforting. Children at this stage will often use anything within reach so it’s a good idea to make teething rings easily accessible.  If you don’t have teething rings, having a washcloth for your child to bite is an easy solution.

Children in the action/reaction stage bite to make an impact. Often a child bites simply because they are seeking a reaction. Biting can also happen when children in this stage are excited or overstimulated. A child who bites when he is very excited will require assistance to help him calm down so that biting can be prevented.

Purposeful biting happens when children are frustrated or seeking attention. A child’s environment comes into play in all stages—but especially in this one. Small spaces within a child care center present opportunities for children to get stuck in them or blocked in by another child. This kind of situation usually results in biting. Too many obstacles in a child’s path or not having enough toys are also examples of frustrated biting. Rather than attempting to understand their environment, as in the two previous stages, children who demonstrate purposeful biting want their caregivers and the children they bite to understand their needs. Children at this age do not have the ability to properly communicate so they are using biting to get what they want.

In any case, be sure to determine why your child is biting because this will help you prevent it from reoccurring. If your child’s environment is causing frustration then change it around so that there is more open space. Consider changing routines and activities if you have to. If children are biting because they are teething, be prepared with objects that it’s okay for them to bite on. Recognizing which triggers cause your child to bite will help you better understand your child’s needs while allowing you to stop the situation before it happens.

The truth is biting hurts and it’s unsanitary. Though it may be a normal part of infant toddler development it is still a problem that must be prevented. The way you choose to handle a biting incident is extremely important. How you deal with biting will impact a child more than being a biter. When a child bites use words like, “Ouch” and simply say, “biting hurts”. Make sure to avoid having a dramatic negative reaction. Dramatic reactions provide the child with the attention they want and reaffirm that biting works. Instead remove the child from the vicinity without emotion. Focus on caring for the child who was bitten and do not allow the child who bit to return to play until after you’ve communicated with him on a level that he can understand. If your biter is frustrated calmly let him know that you understand his frustration but that he “can’t bite because biting is not okay”. If they can, encourage them to use their words when they feel like biting. Reassure them by saying “I will help you not to bite”. When a child is seeking attention through biting calmly turn your back to him while you assist the child who was bitten.

Children who bite have needs they are trying to meet and it is our duty as parents to help them meet these needs or develop ways that they can meet them for themselves. We need to be empathetic towards both the biter and the bitten while still being stern and holding the biter accountable. Even though the emergence of Twilight has made being a vampire tragically acceptable, biting won’t help you get what you want. I would never lean over in a meeting and bite my boss in order to get rest of the staff’s attention because let’s face it, that is not socially acceptable. Although most children grow out of biting on their own we, as parents, must condition our children to behave in ways that meet our society’s ways of being.

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