A Bit About Biting: First With Kids - Vermont Children's Hospital, Fletcher Allen

Parents have been gnashing their teeth with lots of questions about how to stop their infants and even toddlers from biting other people. Well, let me provide a mouthful of information on this topic.

Biting is a normal phase of your baby’s and toddler’s development. Younger children will bite for different reasons.  Babies may bite to relieve teething pain or because they are using their mouths like their hands to explore everything.  Toddlers may bite because they are looking for a reaction and do not realize it can be painful, or because they’re frustrated and craving attention – even if the consequences of that attention may be negative.

So what can you do about your little one’s biting? For teething, a cool teething ring or frozen washcloth to chew on may be all it takes to relieve the pain and biting. For older children, make sure they are well-fed and have had a nap before going to the playground. It’s also a good idea to avoid other situations where your child can get irritable enough to bite.

If you think your older infant or toddler is getting frustrated enough to bite, distract your child perhaps by giving them a stuffed animal to squeeze or hug to relieve the frustration.  Also, building sufficient quality time with your child into your day should prevent their need to bite for extra attention, which can certainly occur during a time of stress such as the arrival of a new sibling.  

If a bite does occur and your child is old enough to understand, use a time out to remove your child from the situation. Then use your words to express your displeasure, such as “No. We don’t bite.” Or “That hurts,” so in turn your child learns to use their words instead of their mouth to express their own frustration or displeasure.  

If a playmate is bitten, lavishing your attention on the child who has been bitten rather than your own can often extinguish that behavior. Most importantly, don’t bite your child back since that technique has not been found to work and will suggest that this behavior is actually acceptable when it is not.  

If a bite breaks the skin, wash it well with soap and water and call your child’s health care provider, who may want to see it and possibly prescribe some antibiotic therapy to prevent infection.

If you are still concerned about your child’s biting or it goes beyond age four or five, talk with your child’s doctor. They may want to evaluate your child’s development and if necessary recommend some additional behavioral strategies and perhaps counseling.

Hopefully tips like these will provide more than a mouthful of information when it comes to knowing a bit – or bite – more about what to do if your young child is biting.  

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.