You’re snuggling your toddler against your shoulder. Both of you are feeling cuddly, giggly, and very close. And then, suddenly, ouch. His tiny little sharp teeth dig right into your flesh and bite down, hard. You scream in pain, and your body reflexively arches away from him. Your baby jerks off your shoulder, falls away, and starts to cry. The feeling of closeness evaporates faster than smoke.
What you want to know is why? Why is my baby biting? And how do I make it stop?
What you need to know is that you are not alone. Babies and toddlers go through biting phases sometimes. It is painful, aggravating, and difficult. But it is normal. And most often, the problem goes away all by itself, in a matter of time.
If your child has been bitten by the biting bug, you may have a hard time just “living with it” until the problem goes away. You want to teach your child to stop as soon as possible. In that case, its important to hang on just a few more minutes before you react. Good kids can be biters for good reasons. In many cases, biting is not simply just a “bad” behavior to be disciplined, but actually a symptom of root problem. Getting to the heart of the matter will ensure that you direct your attention to the cause, and not the symptom. It may be worthwhile to hold your fire and take some time to asses the situation. As with all things parenting, it’s important to be proactive, and not reactive about your child’s biting problem. Below, I’ve listed three very different profiles of biters and some pointers for dealing with the root of the problem.
- The Teether Biter. None of us remembers what its like to break our baby teeth out through our gums. But a casual observer of any baby going through this process can identify that it is a very uncomfortable situation. Teethers are experiencing swelling in the gums and face, cold symptoms, excess salivation, drooling, and diaper rash, to name just a few symptoms. Teething babies are also experiencing acute oral discomfort caused by a hard bone (the tooth!) pushing its way up through the soft gum tissue in the mouth.
Biting may be an expression of pain and aggravation, or a desperate way of seeking relief from the oral discomfort. The fix for the teether biter is pain relief. This can be applied in the form of oral gels specially formulated to ease the discomfort of teething. Infant Motrin or Tylenol can also be very effective for pain management.
- The Attention-Seeking Biter. These biters are most often part of the one-two year old set, although it can happen with children of any age. Many times this problem occurs in day cares, or in families with several small children, where many children are vying for the attention of one caregiver. The attention-seeking biter bites another child and quickly learns that the consequence will be a whole lot of drama, attention, and adult theatrics. This occurs in the form of the adult yelling at the biter “NO! WE DON”T BITE OUR FRIENDS!” Negative attention is painful to the child, and yet rewarding at the same time, because theatrics in any form are highly entertaining and give the toddler a little “rush” of power. When this happens, the biter is highly likely to repeat the behavior. This can create a vicious cycle where the biter hurts someone, is punished, and then, after a brief lull, bites again to continuously direct the adult’s attention toward himself.
The fix in this situation is not simple. The adult reaction to the biter needs to be downplayed and subtle. No theatrics, no yelling, screaming, or punishing. A simple and firm “No biting” will state your message very understandably. Instead of seeking to punish and control the biter, the adult should lavish attention on the victim. This sends a clear message that biting is not a rewarding behavior and does not elicit an exciting reaction.
At the same time, it is important for the caregiver to find opportunities at different points throughout the day, to provide the attention-seeker with the love, touch, and attention s/he is craving.
- The Sensory-Seeking Biter. The sensory-seeking biter is not biting due to teething or in order to attract adult attention. Rather, this is a child who feels a need to provide sensory stimulation for his mouth and seeks to fill that need by biting. Imagine the sensation as an itch that needs to be scratched. A skilled speech or occupational therapist can help the family of the sensory-seeker find ways to fill this need and preempt the biting. Some strategies include the use of oral stimulating toys and chewy objects, or offering spicy food, textured foods, or very cold foods, to satisfy the sensory-seeker’s need for oral stimulation. Each case is unique and may require some trial and error in order to discover what works for your particular child.
Unfortunately, sensory-seeking biters can quickly turn into attention-seeking biters. This happens when the adult reaction to their biting reinforces the behavior and motivates them to do it again and again. In this case, the adult will need to take a three-pronged approach to the problem; regulate adult reactions with a simple, firm, unemotional “No biting” response, provide love and attention throughout the day, and find ways to address the child’s oral sensory needs.
Chaya Glatt, Special Instructor