Biting at Daycare: When Toddlers Attack

The mom dropped the thick pile on the exam table with a dull thud. The curled edges of the papers barely clung to one another, creating a leaning tower of evidence.

With arms crossed and furrowed brow, she slumped back into her seat.

"Look at all of these incident reports. He’s biting at school and he won't stop. I don't know what to do, except keep collecting these notes for his baby book. I'm sure it's some sort of a record.”

For parents struggling with a child who is biting, it is important to understand that having a child who bites is not a reflection of poor parenting. It does not imply that your child is witnessing violence at home. It does not mean your child will continue aggressive behavior as an older child. It does not mean you are doing anything wrong. 

Frustrating? Yes. Embarrassing? Maybe. Abnormal? No. Biting is a simply a phase of development that will pass. 

In larger group settings, like daycare, biting happens frequently. Studies estimate as many as half of children in daycare centers will be bitten, with toddlers being most common. Bites usually occur to the arms or face and rarely require medical attention, as they most often do not break the skin barrier. The vast majority of daycare centers have well-established plans for when biting occurs. And by the time a child is 3 years old, the frequency of biting dramatically declines. 

Why do toddlers bite?

For most kids, biting is a communication tool - not intentional aggression. A bite could mean, "I want that," "I'm angry," or "I'm excited to see you.” Toddlers who bite are often looking for a reaction in their favor, or simply need an outlet for frustration. 

The challenge with controlling biting is that… It works. A bite creates action. When a toddler bites, the other kid drops the toy they wanted to play with; the other kid leaves them alone; they get adult attention they desire. And in a very self-centered individual (all toddlers are), if there is a way to satisfy a need, the behavior is likely to continue. 

What can parents do?

No one wants their child biting kids at school. The reality is, however, you cannot change your child’s behavior while you are at at work. When you send your child to a certified daycare provider, you are giving them permission to effectively monitor and correct behavior. It is their job to work with your child to develop effective solutions while you are away.  

Have a discussion with your care provider about the daily plan. Daycare centers should provide adequate attention to a biting child to determine the situations leading up to the offense. If a pattern can be identified, then the caregivers should discuss a plan to limit the instigating event for the child. This will set the child up for success, rather than continually exposing him to the same trigger. In addition, appropriate behavior management techniques should be performed at the time of the offense. 

Adding a few behavior books to the shelf may help. Popular selections are Teeth Are Not For Biting by Verdick and No Biting by Katz. If you choose to read these books, be sure that the verbiage in the books is consistent with the message spoken at school to limit your toddler’s confusion.

What if your child is bitten?

Although completely normal to expect your child to be protected while at daycare, he is likely to be bitten during his daycare career. Daycare centers should be able to provide an explanation for a bite mark, indicating they were aware of the situation. Being able to intervene in every biting interaction, however, is likely unreasonable in a busy daycare environment. 

If your child is bitten, knowing the name of the biter is unnecessary. There is little productive intervention you can accomplish by knowing the name of the biting child. Discuss with the daycare center administration if the number of bites become extreme, inquire about their supervision plan for the children. With good communication, most families will successfully pass through the biting phase. 

For more information on biting, including what to do if you catch your child biting at home, check out these great articles from KidsHealth and Stress Free Kids