What Should You Do When a Toddler Bites?

Biting is a problem that can affect any toddler. It’s also a serious, complicated issue that brings frustration to the biter, the one who was bitten, parents, and child care providers. In her popular classroom handbook, Gretchen Kinnell offers technique-building advice for approaching biting in ways that work effectively for everyone involved. No Biting: Policy and Practice for Toddler Programs, Second Edition, provides information on why toddlers bite, how to respond when it happens, and how to handle ongoing incidents. It also includes instruction on how to develop biting policies, sample letters to families, and guidance for working with parents to help stop biting. In this post, we’re sharing some of Gretchen’s advice on what to do when a toddler bites in your program. For more in-depth information on the topic, read Gretchen Kinnell’s No Biting, available from Redleaf Press.

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Understanding why a toddler is biting is the first step to helping him or her stop. It may be tempting to say, “I don’t care why they bite; I just want them to stop.” This reaction is certainly understandable, but it won’t make them stop biting. Toddlers bite for many reasons, and these fall into three broad categories:

  1. Developmental issues, including (but not limited to) teething pain or discomfort, sensory exploration of the surroundings, learning through imitating others, or developing expressive communication skills
  2. Expression of feelings, which may include frustration, anger, tension, anxiety, excitement
  3. An environment or program that is not working for the child, for example: an environment that is too stimulating or not stimulating enough, a space that is too crowded, or a rigid schedule that does not meet toddlers’ needs for food and sleep

You should also know that there is no simple answer on what to do when a toddler bites. Because toddlers bite for a variety of reasons in a variety of circumstances (as mentioned above), there is no one-size-fits-all response to biting. The response that helps a child stop biting and keeps other children safe is different depending on each child’s needs, temperament, and reason for biting.

Your immediate response should always be the same, whether it’s the first time the child has bitten or his seventh bite that day. Whenever you’re dealing with biting, act quickly and directly. You want your words, attitudes, and actions to convey a strong message:

  • Biting is not the right thing to do
  • You will help the child who was bitten feel better
  • You will help the child who bit learn different, more appropriate behavior

Help the child who was bitten

  • Check the bite and give the appropriate first aid.
  • Comfort the child and let him know that you sincerely regret that he was bitten, that it wasn’t right with a simple statement such as, “I’m sorry you got hurt,” or “John bit you, and that’s not right.”
  • Affirm to the child that this is not something that should happen to him. Respond to a child’s protest of the bite by acknowledging his feelings and letting him know he has every reason to protest. “You are right! That really hurt, and no one should bite you!”
  • Tell the child (but do not insist on it) what he can do to respond to the child who bit him. This can be a short statement like, “You can tell John no.” You can also give advice about what to do if he is worried someone else might bite him. Tell the child, “If you’re worried someone will hurt you, you can say, ‘Stop!’ or ‘No!’” You can also show the child how to put his hand up and say, “Stop!” When you see the child try out these methods, let him know he is doing it correctly. Say, “Good for you. You were worried she might hurt you, and you said, ‘Stop.’ That’s exactly right.” You can reinforce this by telling the child who may have been about to bite, “He just said ‘Stop!’ and I have to say, it looks like he means it! Let’s find something else for you to do.”

Help the child who bit

  • Once the child who was bitten is calm, turn your attention to the child who bit—be genuine, brief, and serious as you respond verbally and with an action, like redirecting the child.
  • Make sure your verbal response clearly indicates that biting is not the right thing to do. Sound serious without being threatening. This is especially important because toddlers may not understand all of your words, but they will understand your tone of voice, and that’s what they will respond to. It’s important to state briefly and clearly what happened and that the biting was not okay. This is especially helpful for toddlers because it enhances the language skills they are struggling to develop. Be specific in describing what happened and why it is not okay. Some examples: “You bit him with your teeth. She doesn’t like it. It’s not okay to bite people.” (By adding the words “with your teeth,” this response clarifies the word “bit” for very young toddlers.) “You bit her, and it hurt her. That’s why she is crying. I don’t want you to bite anyone.” “You were so mad when the truck wouldn’t work! And you bit Jane. Biting hurts people. I’ll help you when you’re mad, but you may not bite people.” “Jane had a toy you wanted, and you bit her to take it away. Biting hurts people, and you can’t have toys when you bite people to get them.”
  • Tie your verbal response to an action response. The action you choose to take must fit the circumstances of the incident, but it may also include advice and actions for the child to try.  Biting is not usually an intentional act. It often occurs when toddlers have trouble with what they are trying to accomplish. While we want to send the message that biting is not the right thing to do, we also need to direct the toddlers to what we do want them to do.
  • Another good action to take after responding verbally to a child who bit is redirection—directing a toddler’s attention to a different toy, activity, person, or area of the room. You may want to combine several strategies. For example:
    • Acknowledge their feelings; say something such as, “You really want that toy, but John has it right now.”
    • Redirect them; say something such as, “John has the red ball, but I see a big yellow ball on the floor.”
    • Give them choices; say something such as, “You could play with the yellow ball, or play at the water table with Jenny.”

What not to do

  • Time-out: toddlers do not experience a time-out as a punishment or a way to eliminate misbehavior the way older children do. Toddlers are developmentally unable to make the connection—a toddler won’t be able to figure out why an adult is insistent that she sit, and toddlers are unable to use a time-out as an opportunity to think about what they did.
  • Say, “How would you like it . . .”: if a toddler responded to the question, she would most likely say, “No,” but she won’t make the logical connection that most adults assume (“Well, then, if you would not want to be bitten, probably the child you just bit didn’t want to be bitten either.”) because toddlers to not think logically the way older children and adults do.
  • Lecture or go on a tirade: telling a toddler at length what he did was wrong and why, or telling him over and over again, with a lot of emotion, is ineffective in stopping biting behavior. Lectures are usually too long and not given in toddler-friendly language, and toddlers lose track of what an adult is talking about very quickly, especially in an emotional situation. They need to hear briefly and clearly what happened, what was wrong, and what to do next. Tirades are ineffective because the adult’s voice and body language frighten or surprise children, and the message usually gets lost. Adding to children’s stress increases the chance they will bite someone.

Gretchen Kinnell is the director of education and training at Child Care Solutions in Syracuse, New York. She has presented workshops related to behavior guidance and early literacy and is well-known for her presentations on biting and potty training in child care settings. A former special eduction, preschool, and adult education teacher, Kinnell is also the author of Good Going! Successful Potty Training for Children in Child Care.

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2 Responses to What Should You Do When a Toddler Bites?

  1. I have a toddler in the family (my nephew) and I promptly sent this to my sister. We are dealing with this issue as of late.
    Thank you!!

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