I work in an infant daycare center and my daughter Alicia, 13 months old, is also at the Center. We have a boy, 19 months, who bites. He is the terror of the children, the staff, and the parents. We’ve tried everything. We had a special meeting to figure out how to handle Rick. Some of the advice has been to bite him back, tie a cloth over his mouth, put him into time out, or tell his mother not to bring him until he stops biting. I do not feel comfortable with any of these solutions. Why does he bite? How can we help Rick?
Biters are the problems of many families and real trouble in group settings. The problem usually begins when the peacefully-nursing mother first gets bitten by her suckling infant. A loud “ouch” and withdrawal of the breast lets the baby know that she does not like to be bitten. Infants first bite because biting comes naturally because their gums are itchy, and their teeth are coming in. When they get a strong reaction it is interesting to try to elicit it over and over again. It is fun. Like mouthing, biting is instinctual. Erik Erikson describes it as the oral-aggressive phase of infancy. Because it is instinctual, adults respond to it with more anger, anxiety, and vengeance than to other aggressive acts. Outbursts like “I’ll bite you back so you’ll feel how it hurts,” or “Don’t you bite ever again!” are common. The absurdity of the demand “Don’t you bite ever again!” was terrifyingly illustrated by a little autistic child who indeed stopped biting altogether and changed his normal eating habits into swallowing only pureed food.
Of course, our reactions and remediation would be different depending on the age of the child, the frequency of the biting, the situation in which it occurs, and the basic well-being and mood of the child—whether the child seems reasonably happy, or irritable much of the time. While in early infancy biting is rather exploratory, toddlers bite when frustrated, angry, or tired. Young children want what they want right away with no delay. This is the very nature of childhood. Waiting can be too upsetting. Sometimes frustration builds up over a period of time. Young children may become irritable because their basic needs are not met properly. Too much stimulation or poor timing may interfere with the biological rhythm, preventing them from sleeping when sleepy or eating when hungry. Parents may have difficulty coordinating their activities and providing a predictable environment for the baby. If a child shows other signs of frustration, I would look at his daily life to discover the source of his overall maladjustment and change it. If I have to deal with a chronic biter who intimidates other children, I must use a sensitive but strong strategy. Not only are the other children scared of the biter, the biter is even more scared of his potential power to harm. Both ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor’ need to feel that the adult is in charge and can protect them.
I will describe how I handled our notorious two-year-old biter. His mother was desperate. She said that as soon as the children saw her son, Andy, on the playground, they ran away from him. Andy and four other children in his group came once a week for two hours to our infant program. When I first saw Andy bite, I told him calmly but firmly, ” I will not let you bite any child or big person. If you feel like biting, here are things (teething rings, rubber or plastic objects, etc.) you can bite.” From then on I watched him very closely in order to predict what would trigger his aggressiveness and prevent him from doing it. When I sensed he was getting out of control, I would hold him firmly but not punitively, telling him that I would not let him bite and that he needed to learn to trust me. He eventually relaxed and I let go of him. At times Andy was playfully chewing on a plastic donut, part of a stacking toy. Once Andy got upset and started to run across the room to find his “biting ring.” Lo and behold, another child inadvertently crossed his way. This was too much for Andy and he bit her. I said to Andy, “I saw you wanted to get your ring but it was too far and Tammy got in your way. How about tying your ring on your neck, so you will have it right there when you need it?” Andy was so proud of his own biting ring that all the other children asked to have one tied around their necks, too. This lasted for a little while and was the end of any biting in that group. This anecdote is an account of one way of dealing with a problem. It should not be used as a “what to do” solution, but rather as how to apply the basic principle of working on problems with, not against, each other.