Our toddler is a biter. And dealing with biting is emotional. It’s by far the thing I’ve tried to Google the answer to the most as a parent (yes, even more than how-to-get-your-child-to-sleep). And whilst I can’t say we’ve found the magic solution (Pickle still does sometimes bite), I wanted to share how we’ve chosen to deal with it in case it’s useful for anyone else, and to help combat some of the feelings of isolation that come with being the parent of a biter.
I feel I need to preface this post with a massive disclaimer: I am not, in any way, claiming I have the answer to toddler biting. I’m not even sure sometimes if what we’re doing is enough, or right (a word I think has no place being connected to parenting: we all do what we think is best, there is no right way), but it’s what we’ve decided is our current strategy. I am not a child psychologist. I am not a medical professional. I am a parent. And I’m doing what I think is best for us.
So, what are we doing about his biting? It’s a multi-pronged prevention and reaction plan, that we’ve put together in consultation with his nursery. At the moment, I’m happy with how we’re trying to deal with it (although, ask me after he’s just bitten someone and I might tell you different).
Analysing the biting behaviour
To start with, we started to look at the pattern of his biting. We looked at the times of day it happened, the location of bites (e.g. at home, at the park, at nursery), his emotional state at the time of biting and his diet. We wanted to see if there were any clear signs that pointed to situations that made biting more likely, so that we could help prevent those as much as possible.
The first thing that was clear is that his biting is periodical. It goes through phases. He’s not a regular offender, day in and day out, but rather he goes through a week-long patch or a fortnight where there’s a high number of biting incidents, and then it goes quiet for a few weeks. And those periods? Tend to coincide with the times we think he’s been teething. His nursery had the same train of thought, and were very reassuring when I went in for a meeting with him to discuss his biting, letting us know that they didn’t think it was a behavioural issue, but more an unfortunate result of teething pain.
That said, we also noticed other contributing factors. He’s much more likely to bite in any heightened situations (both with positive and negative emotions attached – he wasn’t just biting if he was overcome with frustration or scared, he’d also bite if he was really excited or couldn’t contain a feeling of joy). We also noticed he’d be more bite-y if he was tired (either before nap time, before bed time or if he’d not woken up on his own accord), and if he’d eaten rubbish food – sugar and E-numbers are not conducive to a well behaved toddler!
Once we’d identified the possible triggers for biting, it’s been relatively simple to put some actions in place to reduce the likelihood of those things happening. Now, we can’t prevent teething from happening, but we can try and eliminate some of the pain and frustration that comes with it. We’ve started using Ashton and Parsons teething granules (using a sachet in the morning) if we think he’s going through a teething phase, and given nursery permission to give Pickle a dose of Calpol if they suspect he is suffering from teething pain. We also pack him off to nursery with two different teething toys: a Matchstick Monkey and a green Fisher-Price alligator.
There’s not much we can do to prevent Pickle experienced heightened emotions, but I am more aware of these situations, and know to watch him like a hawk when he’s getting hyped up. This tends to happen if he’s in a large group of children, getting over excited about a fun toy or activity or when there’s some kind of ownership battle. Intervening early can definitely help: I can swoop in and help solve any toddler disputes (usually by offering some form of distraction, or suggesting the toddlers come to a good sharing arrangement), or if things are getting a bit too excited and squealy, sometimes offering a drink or a snack can help restore some calm.
Although at home we always let Pickle wake up naturally from a nap, the schedule at nursery means sleeping children are woken up at 2.30pm but we’ve agreed that we’re happy for him to be left to wake up on his own. After trialing that at nursery, they found his behaviour was so much better if he hadn’t been woken and although that might mean bedtime at home becomes a bit more of a challenge, it’s a price I’m willing to pay if it means fewer biting or hitting instances!
We’re also much more aware of what he’s eating, and have started curbing those little sweet treats that had started as a one-off-treat and soon accidentally became more regular. We’ve swapped out some of the higher sugar content treats and replaced them with savoury alternatives or treats that have naturally occurring sugar like fruit. Luckily, Pickle is a pretty good eater and so this hasn’t caused too many problems as he’s quite happy eating a wide range of food but a good rule of thumb: if he can’t see it, he won’t want it.
After his first biting incident at nursery, I hurried over to Amazon and bought a book that was highly recommended: Teeth are not for Biting. Annoyingly, it’s often a book that gets shoved under the sofa or dropped down the back of the bed so it hasn’t gotten read as much as I’d like as we keep temporarily losing it, but repeating the phrases in the book: Ouch, biting hurts. Teeth are not for biting helps to reinforce the message to Pickle even if we haven’t got the book to hand.
The hardest thing to pin down and decide upon, is how we react after a biting incident. Now that we’ve put all of these preventions in place, hopefully, biting incidents will continue to decrease in frequency but they still need dealing with.
There is such a huge range of advice when it comes to reacting to your child biting, which different strategies to suit different styles of parenting. But this is what sits best with us, although sometimes it’s easier said than done.
1. Comfort the bitten child
Whenever I’m out and about with Pickle, I’m always on bite-watch. I’m never far away from him, and I’m constantly poised to react (which I wish wasn’t the case… but it’s definitely needed at the moment) so as soon as a biting incident occurs, I’m usually the first adult on the scene. Straight away, I offer comfort to the child that has been bitten. Mainly, that’s just instinct, isn’t it? You see a child that’s hurt, and you offer them some comfort. But I also do it to teach Pickle empathy. He looks to us, his primary caregivers, for the instructions on how to behave, and seeing how we react to others being sad, hurt or upset is so important.
It also gives me a chance to assess how bad the bite is. And I’ve seen a wide range! Sometimes, Pickle will just nip at clothing and barely leave a mark, and on occasion, he’s really sunk his teeth in. It’s absolutely heart-breaking to see another child in pain because of your little one, but knowing how bad it is means we can make sure the child gets the right treatment – which sometimes means finding a cold compress and always means lots of cuddles and reassurance.
2. Calm Pickle Down
We know that most bites occur when Pickle is hyped up about something – either he’s gotten frustrated, angry or is just really excited. As soon as the bitten child is safe in the arms of their parent or guardian, it’s time for me to focus on calming Pickle down. Depending on the situation, this could mean taking him out of the room, or to somewhere quieter, but if it’s appropriate and suitable for stay nearby, that is usually my preference as it makes the next bit much easier.
In an ideal world, it’s now that I’d talk to Pickle about what has happened. I ask him lots of questions to try and get him to process the events and realise the effect. I always make sure I can make level eye contact with him during this, usually either sitting him on a chair with me kneeling in front, or sat on the floor together.
My questions are currently prescribed by Pickle’s relative lack of vocabulary, but tend to be something like:
- Shall we have a think about what just happened?
- Did you bite him/her?
- Did it hurt?
- Are they really sad now? Can you hear how upset they are?
- What should we do now?
- Do you think we should say sorry?
- Shall we give a sorry hug?
Once his speaking improves, I’ll start to ask more open questions but for now – sticking to things he can answer yes or no to seems to be working quite well. If we are near the child who’s been bitten, it helps him to understand the effects, and seeing the other child in distress sometimes makes it quicker to get to the point in the conversation when he’s ready to apologise.
Although sometimes my emotions get the better of me (in a flurry of embarrassment and shock), I don’t think it’s best to tell him off. Shouting and raising my voice will only keep him in his heightened state of emotion, and just run the risk of further biting. I want him to know I’m serious, but I’m not sure him thinking I’m angry will make the situation any better.
The final stage of our reaction is the apology. Once Pickle is ready (by which I mean he’s calm and wanting to), I go over with him to say sorry to the child he’s bitten. He can’t quite say sorry yet, so his apology comes in the form of a hug – which I’m happy to say, no child has refused so far.
It’s important that he wants to give the apology and it’s his decision to go over. Although I strongly encourage him to do so, I’ve learned from experience that trying to make him say sorry when he’s still hyped up or not ready can actually just result in more biting. If he’s showing no signs of calming down, that’s when I’d instead make the decision to go home (if we’re not at home already) to prevent the risk of further incidents.
On the whole, he is good with it. If he’s calmed down and chatted to me, he understands that he needs to say sorry, and sometimes he’ll kiss the spot where he’s bitten too (which is always a little bit of a nerve-wracking moment!).
It Doesn’t Always Work
It’s all very well writing out how we aim to deal with biting, but I have to confess that it doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes I let my own emotions get the better of me, and I struggle to keep my cool, letting my embarrassment show as anger. It’s easy to do, but it doesn’t help the situation. If Pickle can tell I’m hyped up, he’ll stay hyped up and we’ll just keep each other in a heightened state that ends with us both usually in tears.
Some days, I have more patience than others. And some days, I feel more of a social pressure to act or behave in a certain why. Although this is how we’ve chosen to deal with biting, I know that it’s not how all parents would chose to react. Ordinarily, I try not to let the opinions of others influence me, but there are definitely times when that’s easier said than done. All we can do, is try and keep as consistent in our approach as we can, when we can.
Should you Bite Your Child Back?
I cannot tell you how many times I.ve heard people telling me I should just bite Pickle back. I’ve heard story after story: I bit my toddler back, and you know what? He never bit me again. It’s by far the most common piece of advice I get told when I tell others Pickle is a biter. Trust me, I know it sounds cruel, but it works. Once they know it hurts, they know not to do it again.
Although I’d love to believe that there’s a quick fix to biting (and trust me, I’ve been tempted at times!), I’m a strong believer in modeling the behaviour you’d like to see in your child. How on earth can I tell him not to bite if I’m doing it myself? I’d be undermining my own authority. Besides, I think the reasons for biting are less cognitive than that, and knowing if it hurts or not isn’t necessarily going to be enough to suppress the biting instinct when it arises.
I make this point not to shame or call out those who do (because, this is advice I’ve received from mothers who I absolutely adore, respect and admire for all sorts of reasons, including my own mother!) but because I think it’s important for other parents, who feel like me, know that they aren’t alone, and to reassure that alternative approaches are an option, and that they do work.
Is it working?
Well, at the moment, I have to say yes. Despite a lot of recent upheaval in Pickle’s life (a recent house move) giving cause for a higher risk of feeling unsettled and emotional, we’ve had a really good run of very few biting incidents. In fact, in the last month, I can only think of one occasion when we’ve had a report of biting at nursery.
I’m not naive enough to think we’ve ‘cracked’ it, and I’m sure we’ll have some more biting phases in the future (especially as his back molars are still yet to come through), but I think our approach is helping. And for the time being, I’m happy to stick to it until that changes.