Picture the scene. All is quiet in the toddler room. Children are happily playing, when all of a sudden there is a loud wail. Teeth have met flesh.
Biting is one of those behaviours that are difficult to deal with. A child can bite another without warning and sometimes for no particular reason.
Unlike other types of behaviour that have some type of lead-up, such as a squabble over a toy, a bite can really come out of nowhere.
Dealing with biting is difficult, but the starting point should be to consider the background to the bite. It is worth distinguishing between first-time biters, especially those very young toddlers who are simply going a step beyond mouthing, and those who bite for other reasons.
First-time biters are usually interested in the sensory experience of the bite. They might well be aged from 12 months to two-and-a-half years. It is fairly common to have spates of biting breaking out among toddlers.
Where a child has not bitten before, it is important to deal with it sensitively. Too much attention may lead to children learning that they will be rewarded with adult time and eye contact. Taking no action may mean that the child will repeat the experience. Ideally, it is worth saying 'no'
in a firm voice and then going on to distract the child.
But what about serial biters? There are many reasons why some children repeatedly bite. Being aware of the circumstances leading up to a bite, and immediately following a bite, can give us clues.
Some children bite because their language skills are still developing and biting gives them a sense of control or relieves their frustration. Serial biters who fall into this category will need support with their language as well as being given opportunities to feel more self-reliant. The link between language and biting explains why many children under three go through a little biting phase and why some older children continue to bite.
Other serial biters are essentially attention seekers. They have learned that this is a shortcut for adult attention. A nanosecond after a bite, an adult will arrive on the scene and the potential for one-to-one time is huge. Biting for attention can mean that a child will literally wait until an adult is close by or watching. They may immediately follow up one bite with another. Sometimes the attention seeking is masking an underlying unhappiness. Working out why the child needs to gain attention in this way, and providing more opportunities for positive attention, will go some way toward alleviating the problem.
In addition, there are a group of older biters whose social skills are still developing. They may find it hard to join in the play of others. They might bite because they are frustrated that they cannot join in or may use biting to impose their will. Watching out for children who defend their behaviour by complaining about others, or looking out for children who find it hard to play alongside others, provides clues as to the underlying cause of the biting.
In the aftermath
While it can be helpful to understand the reason behind a bite, it is also worth developing a consistent approach to how the biter is dealt with.
It is helpful if everyone agrees to keep the amount of attention the child gains from biting to a minimum. Serial biters can be wrong-footed if we give all our attention to the victim and cut down on the words and eye contact given to the biter. It is also useful to ensure that following a bite, adults actively engage with the child. Keeping an eye out on the child following a bite may not be sufficient - to the child, the act of biting is inherently pleasurable. This acts as an amazingly strong reinforcer and children are likely to be primed to bite again. By engaging with the child and keeping them busy, there is less chance of a further bite.
Finally, it is also worth thinking about how we work with parents. Ideally, parents need to know beforehand how we deal with specific types of unwanted behaviour so that when a bite does occur, they are not surprised by our approach. Relationships with parents need to be strong. This enables the parents of the victim to trust us to prevent further bites, and helps the parents of the biter to feel that they can tell us whether or not biting is occurring at home.