Monday, May 14, 2012

How do you stop your toddler from biting?

This question comes up very frequently on the momma boards.  Many moms feel like they're at their wits end when it comes to toddler biting.  The behaviour is shocking, frowned at, and embarrassing if the toddler begins biting other people.  Moms are routinely given all sorts of bad suggestions for correcting toddler biting, including biting back and even spanking.  Violence begets violence.  I don't recommend biting back or spanking because it teaches by example that biting and hitting is okay.  Plus, no one I know wants to purposefully hurt their toddler.

Try to figure out what is causing the biting.  In reacting to biting, be consistent—it will take a couple of weeks to break the habit.  Use prevention, gentle parenting, and redirection to intervene.

For some babies, it’s merely because they're teething and they don't know better.  In that case, keep on top of the teething by providing teething aids like cold soothers and baby pain medicine.  If you remove the urge to bite due to teething, it stops the issue right there.

For some babies, they use biting to gain purchase on what they're climbing… like using their mouth as an extra limb.  My son falls into this category.  Redirection is usually called for after a quick intervention.

To intervene, when your toddler bites you, set the toddler on the ground away from you and tell him, “No biting!  That hurts mommy!”  He might sit there stunned and confused at first before breaking out the tears.  It may take several tries before your toddler understands what caused you to set him away from you… until he sees that when he bites, mommy sets him aside and tells him, “No biting!”  Let him sit there for about ten or fifteen seconds and then talk to him about not biting.

Try to be stern and poker faced—at first, your toddler might smile like it’s a game.  Don’t let that enrage your further.  It’s a serious misunderstanding on his part, and you just need to make it clear that it’s not a game and it’s not okay to bite for any reason.  Talk to him about how it would be better if he used only his hands to climb.  When he’s not crying or smiling smug at you… when he seems receptive to what you are saying, hold him, hug him, tell him you know he didn’t mean to do that.

And then for redirection, show him how to climb without using his mouth.  Maybe he needs a step stool to help him.  Maybe he needs a little coaching getting down from big people chairs.  Provide that coaching and make it into a game.  Congratulate him each and every time he climbs without using his mouth.

For some babies, it’s a learned behaviour to express anger or frustration.  Intervening like described above is critical.  Again, it may take a few times for your toddler to connect biting with being set down and told, “No biting!”  But even more critical before intervening is taking time to understand what is causing your toddler to get so angry or frustrated.

First, try to figure out if your toddler picked up biting on her own or if she learned it from somebody else.  The events leading up to the biting behaviour will indicate this:  if she bites as a result of escalating behaviour, such as fussing first and then biting, it’s usually the case that she has picked up biting on her own.  If she goes straight to biting without provocation, it’s usually the case that she has learned biting from someone else.

If you believe your toddler’s learned the behaviour from someone else, try to find out from whom and stop the ‘incoming’ behaviour.  Perhaps your toddler is in day care and learned it from a classmate.  Just tell the supervisor your belief and ask them to be more vigilant in intervening while your toddler is at nursery because you don’t want the behaviour to continue, but it’s more difficult to stop biting in your toddler if she’s continually getting bitten at nursery.  Same applies if the behaviour originated at home from older siblings or other family members, neighbour kids, or friends.

Next, try to figure out what exactly made your toddler so angry or frustrated that she resorted to biting.  Maybe another child took a toy away.  Maybe she’s frustrated because there is something that she’s trying to do, but she’s not developed the motor coordination to accomplish it.  Maybe she didn’t have a good night’s sleep and is more cranky than usual.  Maybe she was fussing because it’s coming on time for a meal and you couldn’t respond fast enough for her before the fussing escalated.

Purposeful biting because of anger or frustration from a toddler is treated similarly as described above in a toddler who uses his mouth for climbing:  intervene and redirect.  When your toddler bites, set her aside and tell her, “No biting!  That hurts mommy!”.  If she takes it as a game, remain stern.

Then talk to her about it, but in context of whatever it was that was causing her anger or frustration.  Hold her, hug her, and reconnect.  Tell her it’s okay to be angry or frustrated, but that she needs to find a different way to express it.  Give her some ideas and options… maybe she can dive bomb onto a pillow instead.  Maybe she can ask for your help sooner before she gets that upset.  This part takes a lot of practice and understanding because toddlers have these huge impulses and emotions, but they haven’t developed the way to manage them like adults can.

There is a little good news in all of this.  If your toddler has not learned biting from others, the chances are very likely that only those who the toddler is most comfortable with will get bitten… usually you and maybe one other person.  In my son’s case, he’s only bitten me though he spends significant time with his grandparents, his dad, and with care takers and other children at nursery.

One more very important thing to note about this and other behaviours is that it is very easy for toddlers to regress on what they’ve learned.  If something new or stressful is introduced into their environment or routine that really disrupts things for them, even after you’ve thought you’ve beaten this biting problem, you might have to start at square one again and try it all again.  Regression can always happen again and again until your child has developed sensitivity to other social mechanisms that prevent the behaviour, or become a different outlet for the behaviour,  n the first place: peer pressure for example; sometimes just being able to talk about it where the child can express himself in a manner that’s self satisfactory; or advanced problem solving like learning to trade back for a toy that was taken.

Stay calm, connected, empathetic, and consistent.  Use prevention, intervention, and redirection.

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