Medical Author: John Mersch, MD, FAAP
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Why do toddlers bite?
Many behavioral pediatricians report that biting behaviors are a reflection
of the developmental and chronological age of the child.
- Birth to 6 months old: Newborn infants may bite during breastfeeding,
either due to neurological immaturity and an overzealous "jaw clench" or
occasionally as a learned pattern to slow down the flow of breast milk. A
lactation consultant generally can help resolve these issues. While not helping
to correct the reason for biting, immediate removal from the breast teaches the
infant that his behavior produces an immediate negative result and will also
lessen the frequency of his painful behavior.
- 6-15 months old: Excitement is
often the precipitating factor that causes biting of caregivers of other
children in this age range. Biting experiences are generally not painful during
this time frame since the child is most often either trying to let off
"emotional steam" or attempting to gain attention in a nonverbal way. Such
biting is analogous to the "nips" that other animals do when interacting with
- 15-36 months old: Biting behaviors in the toddler age
group are a reflection of frustration and anger and are more commonly directed
against another child and less frequently against an adult. A firm verbal
reprimand (For example, "You are going into 'time-out' because you bit Tommy.
We don't bite; it hurts!") is an effective strategy to deal with such socially
unacceptable behaviors. Helping the child to express his emotions verbally
provides an alternative avenue to vent his frustration.
- Over 3 years old: This
age range most commonly bites as a defense mechanism when they are scared (for
example, during a schoolyard or sibling fight). This behavior is age
inappropriate and counseling is commonly necessary to provide alternative
techniques for expressing feelings and self-control.