Biting is a common behavior seen in children as early as 6 months old, usually around the emergence of their first few teeth. Children bite others for numerous reasons, including teething pain, frustration with peers, difficulty expressing their wants/needs, learningwhat’s edible/nonedible, etc. It is important to use preventative biting strategies so that the child’s behavior does not interfere with their positive sense of self and development of peer relationships. Most children learn very quickly that biting hurts and is not a socially appropriate behavior. Other children may need additional support to learn that biting is not okay. If a child also has a speech or developmental delay, biting may become a challenging behavior that requires therapeutic intervention. Here are some reasons why children bite and strategies to support caregivers in addressing the behavior.
Typical Biting Behaviors:
A child bites one or two times and is easily redirected to a more appropriate behavior.
The child who shows visible distress and empathy towards the person they bit.
The child can show their understanding that biting is a “no, no” behavior.
The child responds to adults and biting decreases within 1-2 weeks.
Concerning Biting Behaviors:
The child bites impulsively, without a known trigger.
The child becomes silly, uncontrollable or dysregulated after biting.
The child appears unable to control the biting behavior.
The biting happens across a variety of settings over 1-2 months.
The child also has a speech or developmental delay with limited ability to communicate or have needs met.
The following strategies can be helpful in managing biting behavior.
1. Protect the Skin!
It’s important to first note how to safely release a child who is biting. It’s our instinct to pull the child away, but that will actually make the bite worse and could further injure the individual being bitten. Instead, it’s advised that you “feed the bite” by push the biting mouth into the area being bitten. This will automatically open the jaw (try it with biting your arm). Here is a 30 second example to help you employ this strategy: Bite Release – YouTube
2. Strategies for Children Teething or those with Delayed Language or Oral Motor Development:
Provide a child with visuals to choose different options throughout the day. This gives the child a sense of control and helps prevent biting due to poor stress regulation.
Provide lots of opportunities for oral motor input ie. chewies, crunchy snacks, blowing bubbles, using a water bottle or cup with straw, or allow a favorite toy for oral soothing. Allow the child to explore toys orally even if not age appropriate for oral soothing.
Put ice in the child’s water bottle to “wake up” the mouth for low tone or to numb the mouth for teething.
Do not react strongly to a biting incident. A strong reaction could potentially reward the child and lead them to use biting as an attention seeking behavior.
3. Strategies for Children with Sensory Based Development Delays
Some children that experience sensory processing differences may bite when their sensory differences are triggered by others. Even subtle things like being softly brushed by a peer or a lot of peers moving uncontrollably can trigger biting. Children with tactile defensiveness may not experience the developmentally appropriate milestone of biting/mouthing other toys and seek out the input in challenging ways. They may refuse the strategies involving new textures in their mouth. For children with sensory processing differences, the following strategies may be more effective.
Allow the child to have extra personal space.
Allow the child to either be at the front or end of lines to allow them extra personal space when next to other peers.
Provide the child with lots of deep pressure throughout the day (ie. heavy work, climbing, pulling wagons, moving books, hugs, squeezing with blanket or giving arms and legs firm squeezes). This will help relax the child and limit tactile defensiveness.
Limit activities that seem to overly excite the child like running with no resistance, spinning, or highly visual apps, computer games, or videos.
Redirect child to an area that is darker, cozy and has limited visual stimulation to help the child relax.
Elements of surprise ie. loudly yelling AWWW can startle children whose issues are sensory based and sometimes be enough to stop them from doing it again.
4. Read About It!
Reading is a great way to process the emotions experienced when a child bites, either directly after the bite or later once the child (ren) are calm. It provides an opportunity for the child to reflect on their behaviors and create language around the consequences of biting. The following books are recommended for young children that bite.
Have you tried these strategies and still struggle with your child’s behavior? An occupational, speech or behavioral therapist may be appropriate in assisting with developmental or behavioral differences impacting your child’s ability to successfully participate in their day-to-day activities. An evaluation would be able to identify underlying causes of challenging behaviors as well as assist caregivers in creating effective intervention strategies to address the behavior in real time.
Remember that your child will continue to grow and develop overtime, despite their developmental differences. Most challenging behaviors come in spurts, much like neurotypical children. By keeping yourself safe, respecting your child’s needs and implementing effective strategies—you and your child will get through this!