SingaporeMotherhood | Baby & Toddler

April 2013

Toddlers and Biting

I remember the day when I went to pick up my daughter from preschool and her teacher looked me in the eye and said, “Caitlyn bit her friend today.”

Oh my gosh! My two-year-old is turning into Hannibal Lecter! Where did I go wrong? Is it because I let her eat candy? Or is it because I let her stay up to watch just one more episode of Dora the Explorer? I’ve failed as a mom! All these thoughts rushed through my mind as I struggled to maintain a calm composure and resist the urge to interrogate Caitlyn over what had happened. She had never bitten anyone before. In fact, my little girl was so even-tempered, she hardly ever lost her temper. The teacher must have made a mistake!

That night after my little barbarian was safely tucked into bed, I did some research to find out more about toddler biting. A quick online search revealed that aggressive behaviour like hitting, biting, and hair pulling are a normal part of a toddler’s development. Their desire for independence, coupled with their lack of language skills and impulse control often causes them to resort to such direct ways of getting their point across.
Fiona Walker, Managing Director and Principal of Schools at Julia Gabriel Education, shared her insight on how to cope with such problematic behaviours. According to Ms Walker, it is best to prevent biting from happening in the first place as this is easier than trying to fix the problem. Biting stems from frustration as toddlers struggle to make themselves understood.

Bites are particularly worrying for both the family of the biter and the “victim”. According to the Mayo Clinic, human bites can be as dangerous as or even more dangerous than animal bites because of the types of bacteria and viruses contained in the human mouth. All the more reason to nip this problem in the bud!

When you have more then one child, ensure that the children are not put in a situation where they have to fight for a coveted toy. It is also important to ensure there is a lot of space for each child to play and that there is no overcrowding. This helps to keep stress levels low.

What if the biting has already started? “We were shocked when he first started ‘attacking’ his friends in class, not to mention highly embarrassed,” Jacinta Goh, mother of a two-year-old boy, exclaimed.

“It was very worrying when Arisa began biting her brother. Once, the poor boy was trapped in a corner where his sister was hitting and biting him. Turns out they were both after the same toy,” said Adeline Tan, mother of a two-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. Things have become better since then as both siblings have learnt to share, and as Arisa’s language skills have improved.


Once a child starts biting, it is essential to emphasise that such behaviour is a no-no, said Ms Walker. At Julia Gabriel PlayClub, a playgroup for children aged 18 months to about three years old, a child who bites others is removed from the class immediately. The immediate removal emphasises to the child that once he or she starts biting, all fun ends.

This swift action works better then reasoning wth the young child or even getting angry as it sends a very clear message that biting results in removal from the fun. Hence it is usually very effective.

Hitting or even biting the child – some parents says it lets the child know that it hurts – is not encouraged. Such physical punishment is not recommended as “it will shake the trust the child has in the parent and override the lesson you are trying to teach,” explains Ms Walker.

Ms Goh agrees, “We never smacked Ethan when he bit people. The family is in full consensus that sometimes he is frustrated because he is not able to express himself easily. The biting was just a way to vent. One thing we did insist on was for him to say sorry to the person whom he had bitten. All activities would only resume after apologies were made. We also made it a point to find out what he was trying to tell us.”

The Good Behaviour Book by Dr William Sears and Martha Sears offers an alternative method to handle toddler biting. “Take your child aside and ask her to let you show her how teeth feel on skin. Press your child’s forearm against her upper teeth as if she were biting herself, not in an angry revengeful way, but as a scientist making a point (“See it hurts!”). Give this lesson immediately after she bites you or someone else. You want your child to learn to sense others’ feelings; don’t expect her to show much sensitivity under age three.”

Although biting and similar problematic behaviours will eventually resolve themselves as toddlers develop language skills and better impulse control, parents and caregivers must take steps to prevent and correct any such instances. Ignoring such aggressive behaviour will not make it go away. In fact it might even send the message that it is okay to hit and bite to get what you want.

I spoke to Caitlyn’s teacher again and it turns out that the incident was over a toy. We’ve monitored Caitlyn closely whenever she is playing with other children and I am glad to say she has never bitten since that one time. Keeping my fingers crossed it stays that way!

By Angie Tan

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Toddlers and Biting