As a mom of three young kids, I’m beyond familiar with all the common toddler behaviors like hitting and meltdowns. But when my child gets bitten at daycare or bites a friend on a playground? Immediate spiral. It’s hard to gauge the difference between normal, developmental phases and actions that might lead to more painful or serious outcomes. Here’s what you need to know about toddler biting: Why it happens, what to do on either side of the equation, and how to redirect your kids to safer modes of expression.
When do toddlers start biting and why does it happen?
Most experts agree that biting is a very normal part of childhood development, which typically occurs between one and three years of age, whenever a child cuts teeth, starts to explore objects with their mouth, or wants to express themselves physically or emotionally.
“One common reason for toddler biting is related to teething, as biting may provide them with a temporary pain relief for swollen gums,” explains Dr. Colleen Greene, a pediatric dentist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “Additionally, toddlers are still learning to express feelings effectively through words, so biting may be a way to get attention from adults before they have language to express frustration.”
“Toddlers are still learning to express feelings effectively through words, so biting may be a way to get attention from adults before they have language to express frustration.”
The part of a toddler brain that regulates emotion is underdeveloped, notes pediatric occupational therapist Laura Petix, which means small children don’t yet have the skills to manage big feelings of frustration or anger. Instead, their nervous systems go into fight-or-flight mode, and biting can be part of that response. Toddlers may also bite as part of sensory-seeking behavior through oral motor actions like sucking, chewing, and biting, notes Petix, similar to how adults chew gum or snack while working. Sometimes this can be tied to an emotion or frustration, but sometimes it’s simply calming to a child.
“Children bite in order to cope with a challenge or fulfill a need of some sort,” adds Audra Nelson, a speech-language pathologist. “Very often, biting is not due to aggression but due to an imbalance in the sensory system, poor self-regulation, impulse control, or lack of communication. They may bite to express a strong feeling, communicate something like ‘pay attention to me,’ or imitate after seeing another child bite.”
What should parents keep in mind if their child is bitten by another child?
If it’s your kid on the receiving end of a chomp, and you’re physically present, be sure to attend to their needs immediately. You may want to wash the area with soap and water, says Dr. Greene, and if the bite is bleeding, consult with your pediatrician, just to be safe.
Next, talk to your child about what happened and determine if you need to have additional conversations. “Let them know that it’s okay to feel upset or scared and that you are there to support them,” says pediatric occupational therapist Emma Hubbard. “Depending on the severity of the bite and the circumstances, it may be appropriate to communicate with the parents or caregivers of the child who did the biting. This can help address any underlying issues or ensure that both parties are aware of the situation.”
It’s important to approach this conversation with empathy, says Hubbard, with a focus on finding a solution that ensures the safety and well-being of both children. Some kids who bite may also be dealing with dysregulation challenges or be neurodivergent—so even though biting is never safe, chances are high that the parents of a kid who bites are already stressed about it. Work together to identify what plans can be put in place to reduce opportunities for biting, says Nelson, and remember that the biting child may be one of your children someday.
What about if your kid is the biter?
True story: one of my kids bit three other children, including a sibling, in a single evening. Another time, our family almost got banned from an at-home daycare due to repeat biting offenses, at which point I was told to “get them to stop.” (Um, you try reasoning with a toddler.) Eventually, we moved past the phase and all was well, but I still remember feeling terrible. Hubbard says that’s a common reaction, but if your child is biting, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent with a bad kid—just that your child is still learning skills to manage strong emotions.
“If your child is biting, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent with a bad kid—just that your child is still learning skills to manage strong emotions.”
Instead, work to determine the cause so you can redirect the behavior. Nelson suggests thinking through some key questions, such as what caused them to bite, if it occurred before or after stimulating or calm activities, and what you think they’re trying to tell you through biting. She also recommends keeping several different scripts in mind.
“If the biting was to seek attention, try directing more attention to the child who was bit (‘Are you okay? I am so sorry that happened to you’),” says Nelson. “When speaking to the child who bit, try to use the same language each time (‘biting hurts’). Redirect them to a different activity and then praise them for positive behavior (‘great job playing nicely’). If the child was trying to communicate something, provide them with a more functional means to communicate this (‘biting is not ok, but you don’t like that, so it’s okay to say no’). If the child has minimal verbal skills, you can practice different alternatives during pretend play, like stomping feet, mad faces, or hands on the hips.”
What can parents and caregivers do to redirect children from biting?
On that note, there are lots of things parents and caregivers can do to provide kids with alternate choices for biting, even if it takes some trial and error. First, if biting is related to teething, look for ways to reduce discomfort or pain, says Dr. Greene. She recommends offering firm, rubber teething rings to chew on, gently rubbing your child’s gums with a cool, wet washcloth, or trying soft foods like applesauce or yogurt. Medications like Ibuprofen or Tylenol can also help alleviate pain if your pediatrician supports use.
For non-teething issues, Petrix still suggests “front-loading” kids with whatever they can safely chew. “Say something like, ‘I can see your mouth needs a job—I can’t let you bite my arm, you can bite this instead.’” There might also be particular times of day or patterns for when a kid is most likely to bite, so notice what sets them off and keep teaching them words to express feelings with lots of positive reinforcement along the way.
Finally, if you’re not seeing any change in behavior, says Nelson, seek help from your pediatrician, occupational therapist, or speech therapist to better determine the cause as well as receive suggestions on how to be proactive.