What to do when toddlers bite — or when you child has been bit. Find answers to the most common questions about biting!
If you’ve spent time on brighterfuturesindiana.org Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. – 7 p.m., or Fridays, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., you’ve seen a little window pop up to ask “Hello, how can I help you?” Or perhaps you’ve seen an orange tab that reads CAN WE HELP? Behind that chat window feature is a team of early childhood specialists. And they are ready to provide answers to questions about your child’s well-being, finding a great child care program and more.
Because we’ve been getting lots of questions about biting, we asked Family Support and Resource Specialist Jennifer McQueen to guide us through some of the questions about biting that families ask us a lot.
Brighter Futures Indiana: What is your advice when families ask about children being bitten?
Jennifer McQueen: We first ask if it’s within the child care program, which typically is what happens. We ask parents to talk to the teacher first. That way, they can find out how the program is handling the situation in the classroom. They can learn what is being done and to kind of watch out to make sure that good practices are being put into place. The best way to find out what is going on is by shadowing at your child’s care center. A provider should give parents assurance that it’s a typical thing that happens in the classrooms of one-year-olds and two-year-olds.
BFI: What should parents do if their child is the one biting?
Jennifer: Sometimes we hear that children have been asked to leave a child care, which is not best practice. That is not something we would recommend. It’s a process and not something that gets “fixed”. We talk to parents about whether there are things happening or triggering the behavior. We also talk about what they can do to help the child find other ways to cope. There can be a lot of things behind biting.
Jennifer: Toddlers don’t have a lot of language to express what’s going on or what they need or want. Many times what they do to communicate is bite. Because it works. If another child takes their block, they bite them. Then the other child lets go of the block. And the block is theirs again. The thing is, it works. But that’s not the way we want things handled.
So what we need is to help the toddler communicate how to say, “I’m playing with that block” or “I want a turn.” An attentive caregiver is going to try to see that and intervene.
Another thing that can be behind biting is toddlers struggling with transitions. When there is something they are engaged with, and they need to move on, there can be boredom. When you are trying to get them from point A to point B, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Then, biting tends to happen along with other challenging behaviors.
Most children move out of the biting phase as they get better language skills or find strategies that work better. Sometimes when they struggle with a lot of emotions, it can lead to biting too.
Occasionally, biting can be from nervousness. But usually that happens with toys and not another child. Although, toddlers can test out biting other children to see what happens.
BFI: Does having more conversations with toddlers help?
Jennifer: Yes, teaching them the words to express their needs helps. Also, teaching them sign language can help too. The key is knowing how to communicate.
Many parents want an action taken when their child is being bitten. Usually they want the child care center to suspend or expel the child. But that isn’t going to change anything for anyone. A good strategy is to help them use their words. We can give them prompts like, “What do you say when someone bites you?” Then, we can model positive responses.
Also, a good caregiver will not give all of their attention to just one child. They will comfort the child that was hurt. Then, they will show the other child that what they did was hurtful. It is important to teach good complex resolutions, even if they are toddlers.
Asking the child who bites to help with the consequences of what they did helps too. We can ask them to get an ice pack or a paper towel. That makes a connection that what they did affected someone else. Toddlers don’t always comprehend that someone else feels at the same level they do. They don’t know what other children are crying about. They don’t connect that it has to do with what they just did. So it’s really important to learn those things through conflict resolution.
Jennifer: I usually tell parents that children do move out of that stage. It is normal. It’s typical for their age. If it’s getting more and more difficult or if they are older, sometimes it can be a different issue. But it’s comforting to know that they will move through it, if parents and caregivers stay consistent.
Often, parents ask if biting their kids back will work — some people will swear by that! But I don’t recommend that we use that particular strategy. Many times it will communicate the message that when you are bigger biting hurts more. It’s not a strategy we recommend. What we want is to get kids to use words.
If a bite does break the skin, just wash it out really well with soap and water. It’s very unusual for a bite to require medical attention. And if it hurts tremendously, put ice on it. Some people get concerned about disease or infection, but soap and water is enough, unless something very extreme happened.
Jennifer McQueen works is a family support and resource specialist for Brighter Futures Indiana. She has over 23 years in the field of early childhood education in various roles. She’s been a teacher with toddlers and preschoolers, a quality coach, a First Steps home visitor and a family specialist.