Behaviour: biting


Biting alarms adults but it is often a child's cry for attention

Biting is almost as common as temper tantrums in young children. For a child to be bitten is very distressing, but often the distress felt by the child that is doing the biting is hidden and hard to identify. We need to look at the context in which biting occurs if we are to understand why it happens and how to deal with it.

The ability to bite starts during the first year of life. It is important for the baby and toddler to feel they can bite, and that the aggression inherent in biting is acceptable, in that context. Caregivers often see it as a step forward, as new kinds of food can be introduced and hard toys used to bite on can give relief from those sore gums. But it doesn't take long for babies to discover that biting can also be a way of communicating how they feel. Then, of course, they get a very different response - biting mummy's breast is not celebrated in the same way as biting into a crust of bread is, as the following story shows.

Seventeen-month-old Jane was still having a breast feed before bedtime. One evening, her big brother David sat on her mother's lap just before Jane was about to have her feed. Jane shouted and her mother immediately knew what was the matter. She gently put David down and took Jane and offered her the breast. Jane looked at her fiercely and instead of feeding, bit her mother's nipple. She would not feed and went to sleep without her usual feed. The following night Jane's mother offered her the breast again but the same thing happened and Jane bit the nipple. In fact, Jane never fed from her mother's breast again.

This is a very good example of needing to understand the context of a child's behaviour in order to to interpret what biting can mean. Perhaps biting her mother's nipple was the only way Jane could wean herself from the breast, but we can also see that Jane had very strong feelings about her elder brother laying claim to Mum - biting her nipple certainly told Mum how cross Jane was!

In a nursery setting, toddlers whose language is not yet fluent, may well bite when they are full of feelings that threaten to overwhelm them. Toddlers are just beginning to learn that the world is a very big place and they are very small within it. Feeling so helpless can be very frightening, and biting can help young children to feel stronger and more in control. Not being able to do things very effectively can be frustrating, so discovering you can get your own way by biting can make a toddler feel powerful.

When older nursery children bite, this can often indicate the child is feeling that something is unmanageable. Often, nursery staff are unaware of the family context that might give rise to a spate of biting, but it is important to be alert to changes at home as well as in the nursery. For example, the arrival of a new sibling or changes in nursery staff can cause a child to express their feelings by biting.

HOW TO RESPOND TO BITING

 It might feel wrong to be sympathetic to a child who bites. After all, she has hurt another child in a painful way and punishment may seem the right thing to do. Some even advocate biting the child back, to show them just how painful it is to be bitten! As in the case study of Grace (see below), ignoring the behaviour often makes it worse, especially if feeling left out was at the root of what was happening in the first place. And biting back is a confusing message to the child to 'do as I say, not as I do'.

  • Taking time to think things through can help the nursery staff to understand the meaning of the child's biting, and then to respond in an effective way. Grace's biting communicated her angry but helpless feelings of being left out; no-one seemed to want to be there especially for her. When this was recognised and responded to, things got better.

  • Paying attention to the situations in which biting occurs in the nursery can help staff recognise the times when children are prone to bite - when they are feeling especially small and vulnerable, or when they feel frustrated and left out. Trying to pre-empt these situations can help.

  • Failing that, responding in a firm but sympathetic way both to the child who is hurt as well as the child who bites, can help prevent a situation developing which could reinforce the feelings that gave rise to the biting in the first place.

CASE STUDY: GRACE

Grace started nursery when she was two years and one month old. Her mother had recently had twins, so both she and the father were busy with the care of these new family members. At first, Grace was a bit shy of the children in the nursery, but settled quite quickly and began to play alongside other children.

However, it was not long before Grace showed signs of being very possessive, and whenever another child had a toy she would try to pull it away, often biting the child to instant effect.

Grace's mother told the nursery staff that this was not new; in fact, Grace had been biting since early on in her pregnancy with the twins. She had tried all sorts of things to stop it, but to no avail. She was very worried that Grace was becoming attention- seeking and so had tried to ignore it, but ignoring it only seemed to make it worse.

Together, the nursery staff and Grace's parents talked about trying to help Grace feel that she was still important, even though everyone was very busy either at home with the twins or at nursery with the other children. They would talk to her about feeling left out, wanting someone all to herself, and finding special time so that she did feel included. Everyone tried to make things a bit easier - her mother tried to share her time out a bit more, Dad made sure he had special times with Grace, and the nursery staff ensured she was not forgotten. As Grace got used to her new brothers, the biting abated and she found it easier to share.

This article is based on a Nursery World 'Behaviour' series by psychologists at the Anna Freud Centre in north London, a registered charity, offering treatment, training and research into emotional development in childhood

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