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Why do toddlers bite?

My normally well-behaved 2-year-old was sent home from daycare last week for biting another child. This is stressful for the whole family—we can’t go to work without daycare, and we aren’t sure why she’s biting, or what to do about it. We always set clear boundaries about acceptable behavior, so I don’t know why this is happening. Help!
—Concerned Parent
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Dear Concerned Parent,

First of all, know that you’re not alone. Research shows that up to half of toddlers have been bitten before at daycare. Don’t worry – this is a normal part of toddler development!

That being said, it does pose a safety concern, and often daycares take action if it becomes a repeat problem. 

Remember that your child care provider should be on your team, acting as a resource through the process, with the ultimate goal of helping your child return to their normal schedule as soon as possible.

What you can do to support your child and help change the behavior: 

Don’t call your child a “biter,” which can intensify the behavior and even instill it as part of their identity.  There are many reasons toddlers bite. This can help you and your childcare provider identify why your child is biting.

So why do toddlers bite? It’s often because: 

  • They can’t tell you yet with words that they’re excited, angry, tired, mad or overwhelmed.
  • They’re curious about what will happen. (They’re experimenting with cause and effect).
  • They’re teething, or enjoy the sensory input/oral stimulation.
  • They need more active playtime to exert energy.

Ask specific questions as you brainstorm with your provider about the reason your child was biting: 

  • What happened right before the bite?
  • Who was your child playing with? Is that someone they are typically with? 
  • Are they biting different children each time?
  • What was your child doing, and where were they?
  • Who was taking care of your child, and what was their response?

Take the following steps to minimize biting behaviors quickly, with the hope of returning to your normal daycare routine. You can also ask your provider to try these strategies as you reintegrate into daycare: 

Distract the child when you feel they might bite another person with a toy, book, or activity, or by changing their location (going outside, or to another room).

  • Actively provide sharing strategies to discourage aggression, such as timers, or having more than one of the most popular toys available.
  • Teach your child about biting during a calm time, by showing them age-appropriate books and movies on the topic, such as Teeth are Not for Biting.
  • Provide your child with strategies and language to deal with situations in ways other than biting. You can say “John, when someone gets too close to you, you can tell them to please back up. If they don’t, you can go get an adult and they will help.” 
  • Teach your child strategies to handle frustration such as walking away to take a break, or taking a deep breath.

Biting behaviors might persist until children are actively taught a replacement strategy.

If the above strategies aren’t working, reach out to your pediatric provider for additional advice. They can connect you with child development specialists and parent educators for further assistance, can help assess any signs of a developmental delay, and can help with early intervention if needed.

Most of all, remember that you’re not alone in dealing with a child who is biting, and that you’re definitely not a bad parent because of it. In fact, you are an excellent parent for pursuing additional knowledge and resources to best assist your child in expressing their needs in a healthy way. Hang in there.

Next Up
Toddler Biting: Finding the Right Response
Trying your best to understand the underlying cause of toddler biting will help you develop an effective response.