How to stop a toddler from biting

August 15, 2011

Q. Our 18-month-old daughter bites her daddy, her nanny and me, not because she’s aggressive or frustrated, but because she enjoys it. She laughs when she bites us. She’s having fun!

Sometimes she comes at us with bared teeth in the morning or the afternoon, but usually it happens between dinner and bedtime when my husband and I are rough-housing with her and lifting her up and rolling around on the floor. We all enjoy a bit of physical play, but should we curtail it?

So far nothing else has stopped the biting.

At first I said, “No bite,” then walked away and turned my back on her for a minute, but that wasn’t effective, so now I say, “No bite; biting hurts.” She keeps biting anyway until she decides to do something else, but then she repeats the biting scenario in a day or two. My husband thinks that she may be imitating our dog, since she often pretends to bark, but that’s probably a crazy idea. Our dog licks a great deal, but he doesn’t bite.

How should we handle this biting problem? Our daughter stays at home with her nanny for now, but I worry about the things that could happen in preschool or in another child-care situation. She’s going to have a lot more teeth pretty soon.


A toddler that bites might be trying to tell you she is getting more independent. (Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

A. Biting (and pinching and hair-pulling and hitting and poking) is pretty typical behavior for toddlers simply because . . . they’re toddlers.

Your child has had only 18 months to learn how to act in polite society, but with all the corrections that you’ve given her, you’d think that she wouldn’t bite her favorite people anymore.

She may not even believe that biting is a bad idea, no matter how many times you’ve told her. All she knows is that she loves to play on the floor with you and have you toss her in the air and she can’t see why her little biting game isn’t as much fun for you as it is for her.

If your child keeps right on biting, however, she may just be getting more independent, which is exactly what she should be doing at this age. A child can’t grow up to be psychologically strong unless she develops trust in her first year and a healthy dose of independence between 18 months and her third birthday.

If you can’t make your daughter quit biting people after a few weeks, you’ll need to use body language, a quick wit and a firm resolve to correct her. The next time your daughter bites someone, simply pick her up and move her across the room without fussing at her or even talking to her for the next 15 minutes. If attention is the best present you can give your child — and it is — your inattention is the greatest punishment.

This discipline should stop the biting in your house, but until it does, you should continue to move her away when she bites someone, look disappointed, stay quiet and ignore her for a while.

If none of these strategies works, you should get a little tougher rather than say, “That hurts!” You can’t, of course, bite your child to make her stop biting you, but you can have her put her hand in her mouth and then you can lift up her chin very gently until she bites it. Even though it won’t hurt much, she’ll be shocked to find out that it hurts at all. Only then will she begin to realize that if a bite hurts her, it must hurt you just as much. Since a toddler is too self-focused to reach that conclusion by herself, however, you’ll have to point it out to her. In the process you will be giving her an important lesson in empathy. The more you help your child think of others, the more you will be teaching her to be kind, to be understanding, to be civilized.

This, in a way, is your gift to mankind. You only have your child for 18 years, but the world has her for the rest of her life.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com. Kelly will have a live Q&A at noon Thursday. Submit your questions now.

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