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Kim from the USA asks:
"How do you stop a 17mo old from biting people. He does it when excited and mad."
Great question Kim, and one that is commonly asked by parents of babies and toddlers! First of all it’s important for you to know it is quite common for babies and toddlers to bite as part of their development and that it does pass with time and support. But I completely understand that even though it is ‘normal’ it can be a problem that you want to solve as soon as possible. Babies bite for quite different reasons including: teething, their way of exploring the world, as a spontaneous reaction, to get a reaction, or if they can't communicate in another way. I’ve discussed each of these below and possible solutions your can try.
It could be sore gums from teething as between 12-16 months first molars often come through but can be a bit later, then 16-20 months the front canines (pointed teeth on either side at the front) and the second molars often come through between 20-30 months. However, many toddlers have a full set of 20 baby teeth by the time their two-and-a-half.
So if it is teething that prompts him to bite, offer a refrigerator cold (not frozen) soothing teething ring, cold wash cloth to suck on or if you are supervising, a cold large metal spoon (one they can't swallow or choke on). Each of these can help.
Way of exploring the world/ spontaneous reactions/ to get a reaction:
Babies learn by exploring the world through their mouths… they want to put everything in their mouths to learn about them. Again this is normal developmental behaviour. They certainly aren’t aware that biting down on something causes pain. How could they know? Even if you have a reaction to a bite, your baby might find that funny and not understand that it hurts! They may also keep doing it to get a reaction if people laugh or play games around biting. Have you seen the YouTube video “Charlie bit my finger”?
Laughing or a big reaction make it a game for a baby. So the first thing is not to laugh or have a big animated reaction – I know that is not always easy if the bite hurts or if the baby bites another child. It’s best that your response (rather than reaction) is calm but firm … say the words clearly “No biting. People are not for biting. You can bite this teething ring. Teething rings are for biting”. Say this 2 or three times to make sure you get the message across. The voice must not be too loud or angry so as to frighten the baby – “no biting” should be clear by your firm tone (rather than angry). If you frighten the baby they go into fight, flight or freeze (back part of the brain) and likely to cry and so you can’t teach them the lesson. You need the front part of their brain switched on for learning so stay calm so they can hear you and learn.
You want to give your child the knowledge and skills to navigate life safely. Offer them an alternative so they know what they can bite. It is likely you will need to say it a few times, as like all humans, we generally don’t learn anything instantly! Make sure there are also plenty of cuddles and love as well. Your baby needs to know they are loved and cared for no matter what. By doing this you clearly show your baby that they are safe to make mistakes and that you always love them, you just don’t love their behaviour and you made that clear with your firm words. If we withdraw, babies and young children become fearful, you are their whole world. The can easily think you don’t love them rather than realising it is about their behaviour. They are too little to get that fine distinction. So a loving gentle education is the safest way to teach your children what they need to know and to keep their self esteem intact. Imagine how wonderful life could be if kids knew it was normal and safe to make mistakes while growing and learning about the world.
As a way to communicate anger, frustration or joy
By your question, it seems your baby is in this category, but I wanted to cover the other categories in case some of that is going on as well in the mix. If a child is very young and biting when excited or mad it is that they usually can’t use their words yet or express their feeling s and this is their only way of communicating.
Some of the suggested solutions are the same as the ones above. Laughing or a big reaction make it a game for a baby. So the first thing is not to laugh or have a big animated reaction – I know that is not always easy if the bite hurts or if the baby bites another child or adult.
When your child is biting out of excitement or happiness teach him/her a new way to express feelings. Again, it’s best that your response (rather than reaction) is calm but firm … say the words clearly “No biting. People are not for biting. You can clap your hands if you are excited”. Say this 2 or three times to make sure you get the message across and you can practice it. The voice must not be too loud or angry so as to frighten the baby – “no biting” should be clear by your firm tone (rather than angry). If you frighten the baby they go into fight, flight or freeze (back part of the brain switching off learning part of the brain) and are likely to cry so making the situation worse and you can’t teach them the lesson. You need the front part of their brain switched on for learning. Offer them an alternative so they know what they can do instead of biting when they are excited. The idea is to think of something your child can do instead and then to practice it. You might come up with other ideas as you know your baby best, please let me know I am always looking for new ways to help parents so let me know.
It is likely you will need to say it a few times, as like all humans, we generally don’t learn anything instantly – it takes time and practice and understanding from our teachers! Make sure there are also plenty of cuddles and love as well because you want your baby to have good feelings around excitement. You don’t want them to associate excitement with getting in trouble. So make it clear that the biting is not ok… but that excitement is OK with clapping hands and making positive noise to show that excitement like this is great! Your baby needs to know they are loved and cared for no matter what and that excitement and fun are wonderful rather than naughty. By doing this you clearly show your baby that they are safe to make mistakes (e.g. bite) and that you always love them, you just don’t love their behaviour and you made that clear with your firm words about their behaviour. If you withdraw yourself or your love, babies and young children become fearful as you are their whole world. I’m sure you’ve seen that fear in your own and other people’s children. So a loving and gentle education is the safest and most effective way to help your child learn and to nurture a loving and caring relationship between you and your child. This is especially important when they are teenagers. This is when you want an open and trusting relationship so it is you, and not their friends, guiding them through life. I know this seems a long way off, but relationships nurtured from childhood will be strong in teen years and beyond.
Children usually bite when they are frustrated or angry and feel powerless. Another child may have taken their toy, they may not be able to master an activity they are working on or something may not be going as planned. Your child is very young and so has very limited words to express what they need so biting seems a great option – in most cases it will be a reaction not a thought out option, as kids brain development at that age is not sophisticated enough.
You know what it is like when you feel angry or frustrated … you react and may feel like throwing something, hitting something especially when you feel powerless to do anything about the situation. However, you also probably have tools to help you regulate your emotions and manage your behaviours. This is the key for your child. How are you going to teach him to get what he needs across without biting? Give him tools in as calm a way as you can. Here are some words you can use “No biting. People are not for biting. If you need something use your words”. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and react – but this doesn’t help anyone – not you, not your child and not the person who was bitten. So it’s best to stop, take a breath and calm yourself … it only takes a couple of breaths.
As soon as you have calmly but firmly told your child biting is not OK and to use their words, tend to the bitten child or person to make sure they are ok. Help them calm if needed and empathise with how sorry you are that they were bitten. Check to see if the skin has been punctured and tend to this is required, by cleaning and dressing and seeing at doctor if you feel that is necessary. It is important for your child to see you caring for the bitten child. Once everything is a little calmer you can embrace both children and speak gently and if possible ask your child to apologise for biting. If they won’t you can apologise on their behalf. Now is not the time to escalate things. The most important thing is that you be as loving as possible and not shame or blame but lovingly teach. Think about how you’d like to be treated if you made a mistake.
If things are calm you can then explore what has happened. Don’t ask why? Kids generally don’t know why. Look for the problem. Instead ask what happened, so you can understand the situation that preceded the bitting. If your child was frustrated with an activity, offer an easier one or offer to help. As you are doing it explain “if you can’t do something or need help, ask for help but no biting. Biting doesn’t help”. Use age appropriate language for your child’s level of understanding and vocabulary. You may have to do this a few times until they learn it as a habit. You can also practice. Ask your child to practice asking for help. This will create a memory in their brain they can use if the situation arises again.
It is also important to explore emotions. Children are learning about emotions as they grow. Big emotions like anger just arise and they need help understanding them as well as managing emotions and behaviours. Let’s face it even as an adult managing anger is tricky and requires skills and attention. So when you see your child angry – acknowledge their anger and ask them about it. For example you could say “you seem angry are you angry?” or words to that effect. If you see them frustrated, help them notice and name the emotions. Of course it is good to do this for positive emotions too. The research shows, the more aware of and the capable they are to express their emotions, the less likely they resort to violence to solve their problems. For example rather than biting if a child can say “don’t take my toy that makes me angry. Please give it back” or even less words for a toddler. “my toy” rather than biting. The more you help your child understand and name emotions, use their words to ask for what they want, get help when needed and most of all offer opportunities for your child to practice the right behaviour before an incident happens and remind your child lovingly and gently when an incident happens that “no biting, people are not for biting, people are for caring use your words!”.
There are lots of ways you can help your child develop emotional intelligence, like playing emotions games. Together with your child have fund with different emotions like “let’s pretend to be grumpy” and then play around with that emotion (be grumpy, stomp feet etc), then “now let’s be really happy” and then play with that emotion(laugh, smile, dance around). The more emotions you can think of and practice the better your child will become at recognising, naming and expressing their emotions. You can get my free parenting guide off the website – it talks about life skills including emotional intelligence.
I know it is not easy to say calm when your child is biting another person, but getting upset doesn’t help anyone – not you, the bitten party or your child! It all takes time and patience, but if you are firm but loving, your child will learn and you will develop a deep bond of trust and care for years to come.
I hope these answers have been helpful. Let me know how you go.
All the best on your parenting journey
Dr Rosina McAlpine
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