Childhood Biting

  • Medical Author:
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Childhood biting facts

  • Depending upon the age of the child (birth to 3 years old), biting behaviors may reflect normal (though frustrating) development.
  • Toddlers most commonly bite their peers in a response to anger or frustration.
  • Socially inappropriate behaviors respond to immediate consequences (such as time-out) and parent/caregiver suggestions for alternative techniques.
  • Biting others or self-biting in children over 3 years of age should prompt a visit with the child's pediatrician.

Why do toddlers bite?

Many behavioral pediatricians report that biting behaviors are a reflection of the developmental and chronological age of the child.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 their littermates.
  3. 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 emotions verbally provides an alternative avenue to vent his frustration.
  4. 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.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/30/2015

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