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  • Writer's pictureChloe Picot-Jacobs, LCSW-S

Why Your Toddler Bites and What To Do About It


Biting is one of the most challenging toddler behaviors parents deal with. It can feel embarrassing, confusing, and frustrating when a young child bites. Plus, it hurts! If you have experienced a toddler bite, or received a note home from your child’s preschool about a biting incident, you are NOT alone. Keep reading to find out more about what causes toddlers to bite, what to do if your child bites, and when you can expect things to get better. 


Two children playing


Is It Normal for Kids to Bite?

If you’ve asked your pediatrician or friends with kids if it is normal for toddlers to bite, you’ve probably already gotten a resounding “yes!” Of course, plenty of developmentally typical behaviors are challenging for parents to deal with, and biting is no exception. 


Keep in mind that a single behavior, even a challenging one, does not represent who your child is as a person. They can be kind, gentle, respectful, a great friend, AND be at a developmental level when biting happens for one reason or another. Some children may naturally have a temperament that makes them less inclined to bite, but those that do have a few (or many) incidents of biting in early childhood can grow up to be just as capable of managing their big emotions. Much like toddlers who have tantrums early on can completely grow out of them by elementary school, biting is not predictive of what a child’s personality or behaviors will be like as they grow older! 



Why Does This Behavior Make Me So Upset?

If you feel overwhelmed, or even angry when your child bites you or someone else, please know that this immediate gut reaction is normal! Our brains are primed to look out for and protect us from threats. Being bitten is painful, and it sends signals to our brain that our body is in danger. Many parents’ gut reaction is to react in a big way, and that initial impulse does not come from a mean or uncaring place. It comes from our hard-wiring! The same feelings can come up for parents who see one of their children biting a sibling, especially if the sibling who gets hurt is an infant. Jumping into “protective mode” for a baby who cannot protect themselves is what our brains are trained to do. We might momentarily feel angry at an older child for hurting them, but know that this is not a reflection of how much you love your kids, or that you prefer one over another. It is also not a reflection of your older child being a bad sibling! They are doing their best with the tools and capabilities they have, but it can absolutely get better. 






Why Do Kids Bite?

Sometimes, kids’ behavior truly seems to come out of nowhere. Even if we can’t see the “why” in the moment, every behavior serves a purpose. Whether to communicate a need, express an emotion, or simply serve as a sensory experience, behavior always comes from somewhere. This is actually great news, because once parents can get to the bottom of where a behavior is coming from, those behaviors become much easier to handle


It can help to remember that their brains, especially in early childhood, are very different from ours. The prefrontal cortex, which plays a large role in our impulse control, ability to predict cause and effect, and emotional regulation, is not fully developed until our 20s. For young children in particular, this part of the brain has a long way to go!



Here are some common reasons that kids bite: 


  1. Control. Kids have very little control over their daily routines and environment. From their perspective, they are told what to do by an adult from the moment they wake up until bedtime, and the only way to exert control is to unleash big behaviors. If their biting brings a classroom or family meal or grocery store outing to a halt, then toddlers are likely to do it again and again! Please know that your toddler wanting control is normal. While it can be frustrating for adults, children asserting independence is healthy and will (eventually) make your life easier. There are plenty of safe ways that children can make their own choices and demonstrate independence, but they will probably need guidance from you to know what those options are.

  2. Needs. Like people of any age, children do not thrive when a basic need isn’t met. Whether due to a hectic day or someone getting sick, there will inevitably be some days when kids get a bit hungry, or over-tired, or are otherwise physically uncomfortable. Kids’ behavior often takes a turn for the worse in those situations, and biting may be one challenging behavior that pops up. It would be unreasonable to expect a child to handle hunger, exhaustion, or illness any better than an adult, so keep in mind that they’ll be at their best once those needs are attended to. Additionally, just like some adults are more prone than others to get grouchy when they’re hungry, kids can vary in the same way. You may notice that your child is more sensitive to disruptions in, say, their sleep routines, than others. 

  3. Stimulation. Some kids are sensitive to sensory input, while others actively seek it out. Many children who bite do so because they enjoy the sensation, and they may not have an available alternative for getting the same level of sensory input. On the other hand, children who typically avoid high levels of stimulation may bite because they are overloaded with input and need an outlet for their overwhelm. In addition to environmental factors such as lights, sounds, and physical sensations, over and under-stimulation can refer to a child’s active engagement with their world. If a child is not able to be mentally active, through play, socializing, or exploring their environment, they can become bored and agitated. If, however, a child is inundated with new experiences, people, or information, especially for an extended period of time, they may become over-stimulated and begin to demonstrate challenging behaviors. 

  4. Connection. Attention-seeking is ultimately connection-seeking, and it is normal that your child wants to connect with the adults they care about, like their parents and teachers. Biting tends to be a sure-fire way for children to get attention. Children are adept at noticing how adults respond. If a challenging behavior gets their caregiver to stop what they are doing, make eye contact, and speak to them, it makes sense that a child will use it as a means to connect. Kids often try other methods of getting attention, such as using their words, offering a toy, or demonstrating a desirable behavior, only to find that an adult isn’t responsive. Consequently, they will begin experimenting with other methods. Biting is a fast and efficient attention-grabber. It is even possible that it works better than the other tools in your child’s toolkit. 

  5. Communication. A toddler’s receptive language skills, or ability to understand language, often out-paces their expressive language, or ability to put their thoughts into words and be understood by others. They also feel a wide range of emotions with great depth, which can be tough for them, and their parents! Toddlers’ roller coaster feelings, coupled with their low impulse control, can lead to behaviors like biting, because they serve as a form of communication. With one firm bite, your child can say to another child “I want a turn with that toy, NOW.” When a child desperately wants to be supported with a big emotion, but doesn’t have the language to tell anyone how they are feeling, they will likely show you with their behavior. 


A little girl covering her face


How Can We Stop Kids From Biting?

First, pause and consider what needs your child is addressing with their biting. Review the list above and see which, if any, resonate with you. Also, think about when your child has been most successful at not biting. There may be a common factor that you can use to your advantage. 


As much as possible, plan ahead by trying to meet the same need that biting fulfills for your child. There is likely a safe, positive replacement that can accomplish what biting does. For example, if your child bites for sensory input, you can provide them with items that are safe for biting. Rather than trying to keep them from ever biting, you can offer an alternative that isn’t harmful to your child or others. There are some great options created exactly for this purpose. If your child is a frequent biter, we recommend having several throughout your home so they are always nearby. 


If they are regularly seeking attention by biting, your best bet will be to connect and offer one-on-one attention before they get to the point of settling for negative attention through biting. Of course, this is easier said than done as a busy parent! If the attention is predictable, that will go a long way. Happypillar is a fantastic option for creating a consistent practice of individualized attention, with strategies from licensed mental health professionals. 


For kids who struggle to manage their emotions, like frustration, anger, disappointment, or sadness, biting may be their way of letting you know they need support in this area. Focus on naming emotions, creating awareness of how their body feels when experiencing emotions, communicating how they feel, and using coping strategies. Teach new skills when they are content and actively engaged, rather than when they are already dysregulated or exhibiting a challenging behavior. For children who are non-verbal or minimally verbal, you can use a visual with different faces that kids can point to to let you know how they are feeling. Reading books together about emotions, and naming your own emotions, can go a long way in equipping your child with feelings-related terms.


Do’s and Dont's for Managing Toddler Biting

DO

  • Stay calm in the moment, using a neutral tone of voice. This takes practice! 

  • Use self-talk or simple calming techniques. You might say out loud “Biting is not okay, but we will be okay.” or try a brief progressive muscle relaxation.

  • Redirect to a safe alternative. 

  • Narrate for your child. You can describe any tension you see in their body, their facial expression, or how you think they may be feeling. 

  • Help your child connect what happened with why. For example, “You really wanted my attention.” or “You were disappointed when that toy wasn’t available.”

  • Keep it brief. A quick verbal exchange is probably all your toddler can handle in a heated moment. Something like “Biting people hurts. I can see that you are frustrated. You can bite this instead.” 


DON’T

  • Shame your child. Children and adults alike shut down when shamed, making it impossible for them to learn from what happened. 

  • Use physical discipline, including biting back. It reinforces to your child that exactly what they did (cause physical harm) is an acceptable way to communicate with others.

  • Dwell on what happened. Repeating the story of your child biting confirms that the behavior guarantees A LOT of attention. It can also be discouraging for both of you to focus on what went wrong. 

When will the biting stage be over? 

How quickly a child’s biting resolves depends on a number of factors (including ones that, fortunately, we as parents can control!), but in general biting is much less common by age 3. By age 4, incidents of biting should be rare, if they happen at all. For children in the age range when biting is normal, the behavior may stick around for longer if it’s getting a big reaction from others, especially from adults who are important to them.


If your child is over the age of four and continuing to bite, speak to your pediatrician.



Children happily playing



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