If you’re the parent or caregiver of a toddler who bites, rest assured that biting in toddlerhood is common, and there are reasons for it. There are also things you can do to stop it.
Strategies to Stop Biting
Before we explore how to deal with biting depending on why your toddler is doing it, let’s take a look at some general guidelines:
Avoid shaming and harsh punishment for biting. Research on parenting styles shows that shaming and harsh punishment tend to be ineffective. What’s more, they’re likely to backfire and make the behavior worse, squash self-esteem, lead to aggression, and cause a host of emotional and behavioral problems.
Do not bite back. You may come across advice to bite back to show your child what it feels like. Not only could this be dangerous and confusing to your child, it sends the message that aggression is okay.
If you sense that your child is going to bite, distract and redirect him. Distracting and redirecting are keys to toddler discipline in general, and great ways to swoop in and stop your child from biting before it happens.
Respond to biting with a brief phrase, like “no biting, biting hurts.” Use easy-to-understand words that get straight to the point. Say them firmly but calmly. A brief, unemotional response tends to be more effective than lecturing or getting upset. Toddlers enjoy attention, even it’s negative, so lengthy, emotional reactions may reinforce the unwanted behavior rather than stop it.
Consider a time-out. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends time-outs for biting. You can read their guidelines for toddler time-outs here.
Offer support to whomever your child bit. This not only helps you determine if the other child needs medical attention, it models empathy.
Read books about biting. Books like this and this are engaging ways to reinforce a no-biting message.
Talk about how biting affects other people. Putting herself in someone else’s shoes is a tall order for your toddler because it’s a skill that develops over time. Still, telling her that biting is painful and makes other people feel sad helps her learn that her actions can hurt others.
Cause-Specific Tips to Stop Biting
Figuring out why your toddler is biting is the most effective way to stop it. Pay attention to the circumstances around her biting. Where is she? What time of day is it? What’s happening before she bites? Who is involved? You’ll likely see a pattern that highlights the cause, and you can zero in on that. Here are strategies for the most common biting triggers:
If your toddler bites during sharing squabbles:
- Learn about why sharing is hard for toddlers.
- Coach her through sharing squabbles in realtime.
- Nurture sharing concepts (like turn-taking and empathy) in your day-to-day with your toddler.
Seeking Attention or Expressing Feelings
If biting is your toddler’s way of getting your attention, or expressing feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, or excitement:
- Acknowledge her feelings and teach acceptable ways to express them. “You’re so mad! It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to bite. Let’s sit together in a quiet place until you feel better.” Even if your child doesn’t understand all the language you’re using, your gestures and actions help get the message across.
Lack of Language Skills
If your toddler bites because her language skills haven’t caught up with her desire to communicate:
- Nurture her expressive language skills.
- Give her the words she can’t find on her own: “You want my crackers. Mommy, may I have a cracker please?”
If your toddler bites because things like crowds, lights, noises, or people coming to the house are too much for her:
- Avoid these situations if possible. If you know you’re going to be in a situation where these things are unavoidable, plan a way to help her take a break if she needs one. This could be taking her outside, or creating a “quiet corner” in your home with pillows, blankets, and books where she can go to feel calm. Sometimes, this type of overstimulation is due to a breakdown in sensory processing. Consider checking in with your pediatrician or a pediatric occupational therapist for guidance.
If you suspect your toddler might be biting when she’s tired:
- Consider whether she’s getting enough sleep at night, skipping naps, or perhaps has too many activities that are zapping her energy.
If you think your toddler may be biting to release pent-up energy:
- Be sure she has plenty of time for outdoor play, full-body movement games, or actives like dance parties.
If your toddler starts biting around the time her molars emerge:
- Head over to our article about easing teething pain.
Seeking Oral Stimulation
If your toddler is biting because she craves having things in her mouth:
- Offer her safe things to bite (like sensory chew toys) and tell her: “It is not okay to bite me, but it is okay to bite this.” Seeking oral stimulation may also be a sign of sensory processing issues, so consider mentioning it to your pediatrician.
Above all, remember that biting is an obstacle many, many other parents and caregivers of toddlers face — and with some investigating and consistent effort, it can be overcome.