Babies explore much of their world with their mouths. Tasting, testing. What’s hard? What’s soft? Does it taste good? Then, of course, comes teething time, during which it seems like your baby is biting anything and everything within her reach.
But what happens when biting goes a step too far? What do you do when you find yourself – or others – on the receiving end of a few too many sharp nips?
While learning by putting things in their mouths starts very early in life, actual biting doesn’t generally take place until about 6 months of age.
Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, mother of two and co-author of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby’s First Year (Windsor Peak, 2006), says babies start to bite when they grow teeth. “At first it is novel to bite to see how those teeth work,” she says. “It can also be a strategy to soothe those pounding gums by gnawing on something.”
But what happens when the biting becomes inappropriate? “Some babies, when being held, will bite Mom’s shoulder when extremely excited,” says Dorene Page, a mom and daycare owner from Martinsville, Ind. “Sometimes it can be teething, but not often, I’ve found.”
In Page’s experience, biting seems to be a stress reliever for an over-stimulated infant or because they can’t do the things they want because they are physically unable to, are tired or even sick. Page says biting also may occur because the child is mad or frustrated.
Sue Carney, a mother of 16-month-old twins from Gilbertsville, Pa., had a biting problem with her daughter, Megan, when she was about 10 months old. “I think it was just an extension of the normal mouthing that babies do … wanting to put everything in their mouths to check it out,” she says. “It also seemed to get worse when she was tired or out of her usual routine, like when we went on vacation.”
Such forms of biting can become habit-forming at about the time Baby reaches 9 months old. Baby bites Mom’s shoulder, for instance, and Mom jumps and cries, “Ouch!”
“Biting Mom’s shoulder continues because of the response it gets from Mom,” Dr. Brown says.
When biting is a problem and parents have determined what triggers it – boredom, excitement or just a bid for attention – it’s time to stop it. This can be difficult in children younger than a year old because they don’t have enough verbal skills to tell us what might be wrong.
In the childcare setting, Page finds that keeping a close eye on a biting child can be a big help. “The most effective way to stop it is to shadow the child as much as possible and catch them in the act,” she says. Once you catch them, you can better let them know that biting is a no-no.
“A child this young isn’t as aware of right and wrong as an older child,” Page says. “Catching them as they start to bite and telling them no, maybe putting your finger on their mouth (sort of like you are saying ‘shhhhhhh’) so they are more aware of what the ‘no’ is for, and removing them from the frustrating situation as quickly as possible is the key,” she says.
Prevent the biting by watching the baby’s biting patterns, Dr. Brown says. “If the biting is happening for attention, be proactive,” she says. “Give the baby some entertainment while you are taking a phone call. Or give them a teething toy.”
Carney and her husband had some difficulty breaking Megan of the biting habit. If they said “no” too sharply, Megan became frightened and cried (as did her brother, Jacob compounding the problem). “We tried just saying ‘no bite’ sort of less sharply, while comforting our son, to give him the attention, because I had heard that even negative attention at this age can be reinforcing because they can’t differentiate,” she says.
That still didn’t quite work, so Carney tried putting Megan in her playpen when she bit, sort of as a time-out. When her twin just crawled over to play with her, diminishing the lesson, Carney says, “I started playing with [Jacob] while [Megan] was in the playpen so she would get the message that he got attention when she bit. I think a combination of these things is what finally got it under control. The main thing was that we had to address the biting every time, every incident. When we were consistent, we noticed a big improvement.”
Dr. Brown agrees that Carney followed the right steps to halt the biting. “Your reaction should be a stern statement, ‘no biting,’ followed by removing the baby from your body and ignoring him for 30 to 60 seconds,” she says. “The baby quickly learns that biting actually loses a parent’s attention instead of gets it.”
As Carney’s story illustrates, though – and Page agrees – it can take a while to break the biting habit. “Babies at this age are very stubborn and not verbal like a 2- or 3-year-old, so it takes longer for the lesson to sink in,” Page says.
Obviously hitting a biting child or “biting back” is an inappropriate reaction to the problem. “This communicates that violence is an appropriate way to handle emotion,” Page says in a pamphlet she hands out to parents of biters in her childcare setting.
“Biters are predictable and it is a normal part of development,” Dr. Brown says. “The key is to watch that child more closely while he is going through that phase. That prevents most incidents.”