"WAAAH! He bit me!" This cry can be very stressful for childcare providers. Because bitting is so primitive, it can cause more upset feelings than other behaviors such as hitting, grabbing or pushing. Because it is so disturbing and may be dangerous, how caregivers deal with biting is important.
Why do children bite and what can caregivers do?
It is normal for infants and toddlers to put their mouths on people and toys and for many two-year-olds to try biting, but most children do not continue after the age of three. Biting tends to be more common during the late summer and early fall months when children are wearing lighter clothing (and the children can actually see skin to bite) and programs are going through schedule changes or developmental transitions. Children bite for many different reasons; and if you watch carefully, you will have a better idea what to do about it. When you know why a child is biting others, it will be easier to prevent the biting and maintain a positive caregiving relationship with children and families.
- Watch to see when and where biting happens, who is involved, what the child experiences, and what happens before and after.
- Ask yourself why the child bites others. Is there a pattern to the situations--places, times or other children involved when biting occurs? Can you spot frustration developing in a child just before he or she bites? If you intervene when the child is frustrated, can you avoid biting? What do you know about the biting child that might be making this happen? Do you know of any changes in the child's health, family or home life that might be causing him or her to bite?
- Teach gentle, positive ways to handle the child's feelings and needs; change your schedule or your childcare environment if you think that might help.
What can be done when biting occurs?
- Step in immediately between the child who bit and the bitten child. Stay calm; do not overreact, yell or give a lengthy explanation.
- Talk briefly to the child who bit. Use your tone of voice and expression to show that biting is not okay. Look into the child's eyes and speak calmly but firmly. Say, "I do not like it when you bite people." For a child with more limited language, just say "No biting people." You can point out how the biter's behavior affected the other child by saying "You hurt him and he is crying."
- Help the child who was bitten. Comfort the child and apply first aid. If the skin is broken, wash the wound with warm water and soap. Observe universal precautions if there is bleeding. Apply an ice pack or cool cloth to help prevent swelling. Encourage the child who was bitten to tell the biter "You hurt me."
- Encourage the child who bit to help the other child by helping apply an ice pack or giving a gentle touch or hug.
- Tell other staff about the incident.
- Talk to the parents of any children who were involved. Let them know what happened, but do not name or label the child who bit. Recommend that the bitten child should see a doctor if the skin is broken or there are any signs of infection (redness or swelling). Reassure them by explaining how the incident was handled, and involve the parents in planning how to prevent and handle future biting.
What if the biting continues after several weeks?
If the biting keeps happening, you will need to take extra steps.
- Meet with parents of the child who is biting; discuss possible reasons and plan together to change the biting behavior.
- Have one designated person stay with the child to carry out the plan you have made with the parents. This person will work on teaching the child that there are better ways to cope than biting and will give positive attention for acceptable social behavior. For example, "I am glad you asked her not to take your toy."
- When the child bites, use the steps listed above and take the child out of the area where the biting took place. Tell the child he or she cannot play in the area where the biting took place for a while and redirect him or her to other activities.
- If the child continues biting or does not seem to care about the consequences, seek professional help and/or explore the possibility that the child needs a childcare setting with fewer children and more one-on-one adult attention. Older preschoolers who continue to bite should be referred for more assessment and help.
What can childcare programs do to handle biting?
- Develop a policy about how you will handle biting and other challenging behaviors that includes information regarding what to do with both the child who was injured and the child who bites. Tell parents and staff about your policy before anything happens.
- Prevent biting by looking out for times or situations that are stressful for children. These can include times when providers or children are coming and going, crowded play areas where children must wait for turns, schedules requiring children to make many transitions, and tired children at the end of the day. Also, when a child is starting in your program, you can ask the parents whether biting or other aggressive behavior has been an issue and how it has been handled in the past. Keep an especially watchful eye on these children as they get used to your program so you can detect potential problems and take steps to prevent them from escalating.
- Praise good behavior. Tell children when you like what they are doing. Praise them for showing empathy or social behavior, such as patting a crying child, offering to take turns with a toy or hugging gently.
- Help the child learn to control his or her behavior. Biting often happens when a child is overwhelmed and loses control. At this age, they do not mean to hurt and are frightened afterward. The caregiver needs to comfort the child who bit and tell him that "It hurts. No one likes to be bitten. I cannot let you hurt other children. I will help you." This may need to be repeated, but over time they can learn to control their impulses to bite.
- Help the child make connections with others. Encourage special relationships with caregivers, talk about how others feel, and help the child express empathy for other children. Be sure to practice and model the behavior you want to see in children.
Do not label, humiliate or isolate a child who bites another child. A child who is biting others needs love and support just as much as the other children in your program do.
How can parents help?
If biting happens, be sure to tell parents that the behavior is not uncommon and that you would like to work with them to help the child develop positive social skills. Reassure them that by working together and consulting outside resources when necessary, you will overcome this difficult challenge.
By Cheryl Oku
Infant-Toddler Specialist, California Childcare Health Program
The California Childcare Health Program's Healthline, 800-333-3212; www.childcarehealth.org
National Network for Child Care, www.nncc.org/Guidance/bit.hurt.html