Biting is a very common behavior among toddlers, the actual act of biting happens when a child finds himself coping with challenges that are "too big" for him to make sense of at that given moment. Some examples would be frustration, a lack of ability to communicate a need for personal space when playing.
A typical scenario - A child that is engrossed in a new toy, or has just worked out a new skill - he will be processing at that moment. Now, if another toddler comes along it can be an overwhelming challenge for some, especially for those that need their solitary time to process, so they will bite (non verbal behaviour) to convey the message "go away"! This isn't a trait solely for the pre-verbal, most children will bite at some stage when they are confronted with a distracting situation amid play and processing.
Another reason for biting could be teething or to satisfy the need for oral stimulation. Children that were weaned abruptly from feeds can often develop an oral fixation which makes them “hunger” for things to put in their mouth. It is important to identify the underlying cause of the biting to develop an effective response and be successful in eliminating the behavior.
What not to do! Avoid shaming, naming or thinking of your child as a “biter” and ask others not to use this term. Labeling children can actually lead to them taking on the identity assigned to them, which can intensify biting behavior rather than eliminate it.
If a child is in daycare the staff should observe and identify what triggers the biting episode In order to act as a guide. It is useful to observe the reasons why a toddler bites, which could be:
Stimuli - Both pre-verbal and verbal children that bite could actually be too stimulated and overwhelmed by activity or surroundings (sounds, light or activity level) On the flip side, a lack of active playtime creates pent up tensions to which a child could offload with a bite.
Over-tiredness - A very common reason that I see a lot when treating families. Make sure that the child is well rested especially around new milestones and cognitive leaps.
Teething - Children that teeth late have a harder time with these emotions. Every experience (including pain) is set in the hard wiring of the intrinsic memory bank. However, teething pains are never recalled. Toddlers have a harder time if they cut the first teeth after 1 years of age for example. If teething is the culprit offer crunchy foods at regular intervals across the day. Research has found that this intervention can actually reduce biting incidents.
Pre-verbal stage - Lack of expressive language skills to convey feelings of anger, frustration or anxiety can result in biting. Biting is a substitute for the lack of ability to use words in challenging situations. Instead of telling another another child that he needs space and another child is standing too close, biting and hitting will be a natural response when his personal space is threatened. Excitement can also be overwhelming for young toddlers. That sudden surge of cortisol that happens can often cloud any logic. Their bodies need to go though cortisol reductions. If this does not occur properly they maintain stress responses. Many parents think that being stressed is that unpleasant mental feeling. However, excitement when responding to happy stimulation naturally produces a stress response, and even this enjoyable stress response produces the same physical changes as an unpleasant experience. The problem is when it becomes an everyday occurrence the body cannot offload and children use biting, pinching, and hitting as their outlet. Another reason Pre-verbal toddlers bite is to get a reaction, cause and affect, like with anything new that they learn. Help your child express his feelings in appropriate ways. If your child is really angry, you can say: John, you are so you are really, really angry. Then suggest a way to deal with these feelings.
Verbal stage - As above, when a child is super excited and wants to share his game with another he may not have the words at that given moment and will bite as a bizarre means of friendly invitation to join the activity. If we look at kittens at play, these little nibbles are foreplay to the rough rumbling that follows.
Solutions in a daycare setting - Make sure that the classroom has more than one of the most popular toys, sharing is one of the most common triggers for biting! The daycare staff should make a point of observing things like - What happened right before the bite? Who the child playing with and who the child bites?
For example - Was it always the same child, or different child each time? By observing such interaction staff will be able to intervene if a child might be on the verge of biting and remove him from the situation to reduce the tension, shift attention elsewhere. Or, if the child was playing in a group setting and the child bit to express the need for solitary - sport casting is a great way to help the child that is non-verbal at that given time.
Sporcasting example - Jonathan, you can tell Becca: “You are a little too close to me. I don’t like it when you touch my arm when we play.” If you think a child might be biting due to a need for oral stimulation, offer something he can safely bite and chew
Solutions for Parent - Stay calm. If and when your toddler bites, you might feel infuriated or even somewhat embarrassed. All of these feelings are normal, but responding when you are in an intense emotional state is usually not a good idea.
First things first. Calm yourself before you respond. In a firm but calm, matter-of-fact voice , say: "I cannot let you bite as biting hurts, he/she is crying because you bit him/her, biting hurts.
Short, simple and clear. Give your child a firm “bear” hug when you sense that feeling of stress and out of control and perhaps about to bite. Proprioceptive touch can organize their little bodies and help children feel “held together” which can be very soothing. If your child is easily overwhelmed by lights, sound, and activity eliminate screen time, avoid big crowds and high-activity settings like the mall, playground and most of all play-dates or activities with a lot of sensory input. This is especially relevant at times when your child has had a full day, not rested well or hungry
Biting intentially for attention - This solution is especially for the verbal child that isn't compromised socially and may have taken a chomp at a playmate for attention or because of boredom. Obviously there could be the chance that this was a way of him dealing with bigger issues but nevertheless should be dealt with accordingly.
What to do? Verbally affirm the boundary then shift your attention to the child who was bitten, too much focus on the biter is very reinforcing and can actually cause the biting behavior to continue, rather than stop. When focus is shifted to the child who was bitten, you clearly communicate that biting does not result in more attention. Showing concern and sympathy for the child who was bitten also teaches empathy.
For further reading on biting I recommend - "Bites" by Lisa Sunbury, "The Biting Solution" by Lisa Poelle http://www.stopthefightingandbiting.com and
1, 2, 3…The Toddler Years by Irene Van Der Zande. This book offers practical help in an entertaining way :)