Biting

OUCH!  Those little teeth are SHARP!

As anyone who hangs around infants and toddlers knows, they explore the world using their mouths. When their teeth start coming through, the urge to gnaw on things becomes even more pronounced. Pressure and friction on swollen gums seems to make them feel better. Once the teeth actually come through, however, those little teeth make things like “kisses” and knuckle-gnawing really painful, if you’re on the receiving end!

When that happens, the natural reaction is to yelp, which kids sometimes perceive as funny. Older infants and toddlers will often bite when they’re excited or over-stimulated, as well — which is natural, help-them-cope use of their most important sensory organ, the mouth. This combination of the drive to gnaw, plus the funny reaction it gets, can set a little tyke on the road to nicknames like “fang” and “chomper” and “little vampire” before you know it.

So what can you do, short of garlic and wooden stakes, if your child is a biter?

First of all: not to worry.  It’s no indication of pathology, doesn’t mean he’ll be a bully, and no need to keep her away from mirrors or sunlight. It’s a normal behavioral variation — but one you do want to squelch, for all of the obvious reasons.

When your child bites you or another adult, give immediate negative feedback.  You can’t be sweet and gentle, the way you normally talk with him (“Oh honey, don’t do that, it hurts Mommy.”)  That continues the game aspect of it, and doesn’t make it clear that this is a BIG no-no. Also, try not to scream — easier said than done, I know! — because that can be seen as funny as well.

An immediate end to the fun, provided by a sharp, loud, “NO!” will usually surprise the child and stop the biting at that moment. That same negative feedback every time will be what helps him to learn, over time, that biting is not OK.

If your child bites another child, it’s impossible to stop the scream from the other child, which can be reinforcing entertainment. But the biter needs the same immediate, harsh, “NO!” from the responsible adult. Then the bitee gets the attention, the toy in dispute, etc.

When a child is biting repeatedly, time out can be an effective addition to this routine. In addition to the sharp rebuke and stopping any fun activity, a time out (about a minute per year of age) can help to break the current behavior pattern by providing a pause/reset. When the time out is over and the child is calmer, explain that we can’t bite people because it hurts, and that it’s not nice to hurt other people.

Don’t expect the biting to end immediately; it’s a developmental phase, like all others. But the consistency of negative responses when it happens will help your child, over several weeks to months, to learn that biting is not acceptable.

Dr. Sarah Springer, a Kids Plus Doc, serves as the Medical Director of Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania.