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Why Do Toddlers Bite?

Teeth Windup Toy
Imagine brining your toddler home from daycare, getting them ready for a bath and then finding them covered with bite marks. That's the scary experience we lived through with our 18-month-old son who was in daycare. We were in total disbelief to find not one, not two but five bite marks on his body!
He had one bite on his forearm, one bite on his shoulder and three bites on his back. Keep in mind this is our firstborn child and he was at a reputable daycare center. How could something horrific like this happen to our little boy?
Bite Marks
We couldn't believe that he could have been bitten so many times and were furious at the thought that he wasn't getting appropriate attention during the day. The very next morning we sat down with the daycare administrator and voiced our displeasure with what had happened. We did our best to remain civil but it wasn't easy.
The daycare administrator spoke with the person that was responsible for watching our son and they said they didn't see or hear anything going on to lead them to believe our son was being bitten. The daycare administrator apologized profusely and brought on additional help to make sure our son wouldn't be in the room with a single supervisor. Fortunately this was the last time we've ever had one of our children come home with bite marks.
Let's take a look at some of the more common questions on this topic and try to understand what circumstances can lead to this type of thing happening and how parents can best manage it when they confronted with a biting incident.
Why do toddlers bite?
What do I do when my toddler bites someone?
What do I do when someone bites my toddler?
What do you do when you can't break the habit?
Our final take.
Why do toddlers bite?
Being a toddler is tougher than you'd think. There's really not that much time between when you were a baby with very basic expectations and the time you've reached toddler status. By that time your parent's are putting some pretty ambitious expectations on you. Some expectations include how they react in social situations. Good behavior is only somewhat instinctual though. There are a lot of complexities that have to be taught over time. One thing some toddlers are going to have to be taught is that biting isn't acceptable.
When a toddler bites they're usually reacting to something that's happening internally (meaning something with their body), or they're reacting to something that's external (meaning something in their environment). Let's take a look at some of the more common reasons in each group to help differentiate the two.
Internal Stimulus
- Teething: If those teeth are coming in fast and furious they're going to have a natural instinct to chew, chew and chew. If they don't have a teething chew to keep them busy they might just go for something that's nearby. Like Joe over in the corner of the room. Keeping a teething chew around might help with this stimulus.

- Hungry: Sometimes toddlers are just hungry and looking for a snack. Make sure they have plenty to eat before playing with others or being held by a friend or family member.

- Tired: When you've got a tired child on your hands all kind of strange behaviors emerge. It's sort of a Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing. I think all kids have this dual personality condition. Making sure your toddler gets enough sleep, at night and naptime, before social time can help improve their general demeanor.

External Stimulus
- Angry: When toddlers are angry it's not uncommon for them to use their arm like a club and start wielding it around in defense of their turf or favorite toy. If they're in really close quarters it makes it easy for them to just lean in and bite. When this happens the best thing to do is remove them from the situation so they can calm down.

- Frightened: There are a log of things that can be scary to toddlers including new places, new sounds and new people. If they feel frightened they may feel the need to act out in self-defense. When this happens the best thing to do is provide comfort and assurance that they're safe. Sitting nearby can help achieve this.

- Curious: Sometimes toddler like to test the waters. Sure using your eyes and hands is enough for an adult but sometimes kids want to feel texture with their mouth or see what something tastes like. This is probably the least concerning reason for a toddler to bite. Usually a warning is enough to get them back on track.

- Jealous/Attention Seeking: If a toddler sees someone else getting more attention then they'd like they might act out in jealousy and bite the person that's getting all the attention. When this happens the best thing to do is provide comfort and assurance that you're still their number one fan.
What do I do when my toddler bites someone?
If your toddler bites someone the first thing you should do is create some space between your toddler and the person that was bitten. This is important because it will prevent your toddler from biting again and it prevents the person whom was bit from making a potentially dangerous response. Obviously if the toddler bit an adult it's less likely that they'll retaliate.
Make sure the person that was bitten is ok and then turn your attention to your toddler. While looking at your toddler in the eye and speaking with a firm voice you should tell them that biting other people is never an ok thing to do. Biting people hurts and that kind of behavior isn't allowed.
Ask your toddler why they bit the person even if you already have a strong suspicion as to why. This will allow for a dialogue to happen and let your child know that you care about their feelings. Tell them how they should react in the future when that situation reoccurs and if possible help them reenact the scenario minus the biting to reinforce what you said and demonstrate to your toddler that there's a better way to handle the situation.
What do I do when someone bites my toddler?
If someone bites your toddler the first thing you should do is create some space between your toddler and the person that bit him or her. This is important because it will prevent your toddler from being bitten again. It will also prevent your toddler from any form of retaliation.
Once separated make sure your toddler is ok. Look at where they were bit and make sure the skin wasn't broken and there's no bleeding. If the skin was broken you should treat it as you would with any open wound. Clean it with some antiseptic, apply some antibacterial ointment and dress it with a band-aid.
Let your toddler know that they're ok now and that any physical discomfort they're feeling will go away soon. If you have any tricks for distracting your toddler's attention now might a good time to use it just to get them to calm down.
If you're not sure why your toddler was bitten make sure you understand what led up to it. If your toddler was an innocent bystander there's really not much else you need to tell them. In this case it's usually a good idea to reassure your toddler that it was the other child that was at fault. If your toddler instigated the event let them know what they did wasn't right and teach them what they should have done or said differently. Instigating a biting incident is never just cause for it to happen. Learning how to play nice with others will help reduce the chance of it happening again.
What do you do when you can't break the habit?
Biting isn't that uncommon so don't think that because your toddler bit someone that it warrants seeking professional help. If your toddler is biting over and over again and speaking to them alone isn't working you may have to work on a plan with their caretakers. Working with your toddler's caretakers try to identify any sort of pattern to their biting behavior such as the time of day, the location, the other children that are present and what activity was taking place just prior to the event. If you can identify the thing or things that are triggering what's happening you can take some proactive steps to prevent future incidents.
For example if your toddler keeps biting late in the afternoon it might be due in part to not getting a sufficient enough nap which is leaving them very irritable. If that's the case try to work on lengthening their naptime so that they're in a better mood. If for example your toddler is biting someone every time they see someone else begin to play with a certain toy try to devise a plan around the toy. You could get a second toy so there's less competition, substitute that toy for another one so it isn't a point of competition or let you toddler bring one of their favorite toys from home.
If all attempts to break the habit don't work you should speak with your child's pediatrician and get their take on seeing a development specialist. A development specialist will assess your toddler to try to pinpoint what's causing the behavior and then work with you to devise a therapy plan designed to work on the developmental issue and remedy the situation in a way best suited to your toddler's needs.
Our final take.
It's not uncommon for a toddler to bite or be bitten. You can work with your toddler and their caretakers to break that habit. If you're not having any success with stopping the incidents from happening don't be afraid to take your concerns up with your pediatrician or a development specialist.
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