Why Do Children Bite?

Although the habit of biting in children is a part of the growing up process, it is important to understand why children bite.

By Arun Sharma  • 8 min read

Why Do Children Bite?

Jaya left her 4-year-old son Rohit to play with his 9-month-old brother, while she went off to attend to some household chores. Only a few minutes had passed, when she heard Rohit yelp in pain, followed by the loud wail of the baby. She rushed inside and pacified both her children. Once the situation was under control, she asked Rohit what had happened. Apparently, while playing with his little brother, Rohit had inserted his finger in the baby’s mouth and had been bitten. Unable to cope with the pain and anger, he had bitten his brother in return.

Incidents similar to the one mentioned above are common. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers, all indulge in biting some time or the other; however, the reasons for biting vary according to age. Let’s understand what triggers biting among children of these three age groups and how to deal with it.

1. Why infants bite: In infants, biting behaviour may be triggered by many reasons. 

  • The sore biter: bites to soothe the discomfort caused by teething 
  • The exploring biter: bites when overcome by an urge to explore
  • The reaction-seeking biter: bites to find out the reaction to a bite 

If you laugh or get angry when your child bites, it can arouse your baby’s curiosity and he may try to bite you again to elicit your reaction.

What to do: Leaving this behaviour unchecked may lead to it becoming a habit when your infant grows up into a toddler. So, teach your baby not to bite. You can do so by putting your baby down on the bed and letting her think that you are not paying attention, while still keeping a watchful eye. Repeat this if your baby bites again. Or, you can also respond by loudly saying, “Ouch that hurts…don’t bite me.” Soon enough your baby will understand and stop biting. Also, offer your baby something that he can bite, for example, a pacifier or a soft toy. Don’t scold your baby or get upset with him, for he doesn’t understand that biting hurts or causes pain.

2. Why toddlers bite: While an infant is unaware that biting hurts, toddlers understand very well that biting causes pain. They usually take to biting as they lack the language skills needed to communicate their thoughts and feelings. 

  • The emotional biter: bites when he feels stressed, scared, tired, bored, hungry, angry or frustrated 
  • The attention-seeking biter: bites to gain attention
  • The copy-cat biter: bites to imitate others who bite
  • The affectionate biter: bites to show love 

Toddlers depend on adults and so have little control over what happens in their lives. Therefore, for them, biting is a way of asserting control.

What to do: Teaching a toddler not to bite is easier said than done. It is helpful to find out what causes your toddler to bite, although it is not necessary to know the reason to help your child quit the habit. Some things you can do are – teach your child words and gestures to express her emotions, prevent her from biting, and praise her good behaviour when she refrains from biting. Also, show sympathy for the child who has been bitten. This will make the child who has bitten understand that biting causes pain and hurt.

3. Why preschoolers bite: It is apparent from the way preschoolers behave that they are full of energy and enthusiasm, and exploring and testing boundaries.

  • The pretend-play biter: While indulging in make-believe play, for example, enacting the role of a tiger, a preschooler may bite to make things look real.
  • The expressive biter: Although preschoolers have better language skills than toddlers, they still aren’t good enough to always allow them to express what they want to. So, preschoolers may bite when they feel frustrated, angry or anxious. 
  • The anxious biter: Preschoolers also bite when they feel nervous or scared; for example, when being taken to a new preschool or to the doctor’s cabin.

What to do: Since preschoolers have better language skills than toddlers, talk and make your child understand. Teach him empathy by telling him that biting hurts. Talk to him to understand what caused him to bite. Also, try to stay calm and keep your reaction under control, after you come to know that your child has bitten someone.

Parents can play a vital role in helping their child get over the habit of biting. Before initiating steps to prevent a child from biting, parents should think about what the child was doing before biting, what caused the child to bite, who was playing with the child and so on. However, according to the article, ‘Dealing with Biting Behaviors in Young Children’, by Ron Banks and Sojin Yi, published in ECAP Collaborative (2002), “Once a child turns 3 years old, however, biting may indicate other behavioral problems, especially if the biting incidents are frequent.” So, if you suspect that your toddler or preschooler’s biting behaviour isn’t normal, seek help from professionals.

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