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An Adeona Family Podcast: An Early Childhood Journey

Episode 09: What To Do When Your Child Bites

While biting is completely normal behaviour, it is one we have to address—left unaddressed things are going to escalate.

Children learn a lot in the early years, particularly through their feet and their mouth, so it makes sense why children would experiment with biting. There can be a number of reasons why a child might bite and some of these include:

  • Biting as a sensory experience or for relief from teething pain
  • Biting as a form of frustration. This can come as a result of a child not yet developing the skills for emotional regulation. Often times when children get angry, upset, or they want something, they act out of impulse
  • Biting as a form of communication. Often frustration and communication can be quite linked. As a generalisation, when children over a certain age still engage in bitting we would be looking at communication being the primary reason as to why that behaviour is still displayed. As a result, we would put in place a number of support structures to help with that
  • We also look for patterns that might reveal underlying reasons for biting like time of day, tiredness, hunger etc. Based on what we observe, that determines what our course of action will be

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Thank You

We’d love to hear from you! If you have any feedback, suggestions or questions about anything we discussed today, please feel free to reach out –

Our early childhood education centres:

Coorparoo | Mitchelton | Noosaville | Mackay

Podcast Transcription

Zoe (00:11):
Welcome to an early childhood journey, and thank you for joining us again today. I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that Tracy and I meet on today, and that is the land of the Yuggera and Turrbal people. And I’d like to do a special acknowledgement, because we’re actually recording in NAIDOC week this week. So we’d really like to send our appreciation to all of the indigenous people who might be joining us and sharing in their knowledge during this week as well. So today we’re going to be chatting about biting. Now biting is one of those issues that we get here at the centre. And I’m sure you probably do at home as well as parents. And it can be a really big trigger for some adults. I think adults view it as a very antisocial issue, and so it really doesn’t sit well with people quite often. But we’re here kind of to talk to you a bit more about that so that you can understand the why. So Tracy, did you want to add something to that?

Tracy (01:12):
Yeah, I guess just that the aim of this podcast is to let families know that biting, as we said, even though it can be a little distressing for all parties involved, is a completely normal behaviour, and that there are a number of things that we can do to support children if they are experimenting with this type of behaviour, and that it’s not a reflection on any type of parenting or anything on the child. It really is just a normal part of development.

Zoe (01:42):
Absolutely. And also, I guess one of the things that we the chat I have with parents here is that while it is normal behaviour, there are still things that we have to do. Absolutely. Yeah. And there are also various reasons why children will do these behaviours. So I think that’s the first thing we would like to go through. Tracy. Some of those reasons why children bite.

Tracy (02:04):
Yeah, sure. And I just want to agree with you there, Zoe, that while it’s a perfectly normal behaviour, it is one that we have to address left unaddressed. Obviously things are going to escalate, and it is a distressing behaviour because it is a way that children can quite significantly hurt another child or adult, as opposed to when if they hit or kick because they’re so little, it doesn’t really have a huge impact, whereas sharp teeth do.

Zoe (02:27):
And they leave a mark.

Tracy (02:28):
And they leave a mark, and sometimes it even breaks skin, unfortunately, which can be very distressing, as I said, for everybody involved. But we do want to, I guess, let everybody know that it is normal and there are a number of different reasons why a child might bite. The first being it’s just a sensory thing. Some you can imagine with teething that sometimes biting on something and, you know, imagine that an arm or is quite a a squishy but firm sense in your mouth. If you’re if you’re experiencing pain from teething or even just as a sensory experience. And if you lean over and your arm happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time proximity you might find yourself on the other end of that experiment or that urge to have something in their mouth.

Zoe (03:16):
And children learn a lot through two particular senses when they’re very little, and that is their feet and through their mouth. So it makes sense that the same reason why we see children putting a lot of things into their mouth. They are also going to experiment with the use of that mouth as well.

Tracy (03:33):
Absolutely. And that probably leads us into our earliest form of biting, which might be during breastfeeding. Obviously, if they’re being bottle fed, they’re still biting. But it doesn’t have the impact as biting when being breastfed would. And so that’s probably that first sensory and putting together what happens when I do this. What kind of reaction do I get and what does it feel like all of that sort of thing. Then other reasons where we might see a child deciding to bite is if they’re becoming frustrated. So this might be for a number of reasons. It might be because they haven’t developed yet the skills for emotional regulation. So if they’re getting angry or they are wanting something, they, you know, as we’ve talked about in our emotional regulation podcast, that that lizard brain or they flip their lid as we’ve described. And so they’re thinking out of impulse and not really thinking about the consequences. So with that kind of behaviour, we it would be a different approach to if it’s a sensory biting for a sensory reason. And then the third one is communication. And so frustration and communication can be quite linked. And generally you’ll find that children who and this is just a generalization that children who are biting over about the age of three, we would be looking at communication being the primary reason why that behaviour is still being displayed and put into place a number of things to support them with that.

Zoe (04:59):
Yeah. And I think if we think along the lines of, you know, kind of evolutionary processes for young children, they don’t have very many defence mechanisms. Absolutely. But teeth are a great defence mechanism. So sometimes it will be in self defence as well. Or and that frustration comes into that sometimes. And it is a really easy early communication that teeth are very effective at communicating. And so it can become a very easy way for them to communicate frustration or anger or fear even.

Tracy (05:35):
Absolutely. So I guess taking it from a centre perspective from. What we see here at Adeona, we’re probably more likely to see biting behaviour just because there’s a lot more people in one space. There’s, I guess, a bit more. You know, while we aim to provide resources, there’s just no way that we can have 50 Tonka trucks out in the yard. So sometimes there will be competition for resources.

Zoe (06:01):
And sometimes it doesn’t even matter if we do. They just want that particular Tonka truck.

Tracy (06:07):
The one with the green wheel. And so there’s those sorts of conflicts which they may not have at home, especially if there’s no other siblings or younger siblings that aren’t interfering in their play yet. So it’s not uncommon for a child who is not displaying that behaviour at home to sometimes give it a go here, because it is a very different setting, with a lot more people, a lot more different personalities, and it can be harder for them to maybe communicate in a larger group. It can be quite overwhelming. And so they’re drawing on whatever resources they have. So with any sort of incident that involves biting, we would, as a centre do up an incident report, we would do one for the child who has bitten to allow their family to open a discussion with their family about what’s happened. And also, we’d obviously have to do one for the child who was bitten. Because there’s an injury. As you would be aware, privacy doesn’t allow us to discuss with families which child did what. But generally, once children are verbal anyway, they’re more than happy to tell you what went down. With that, that is not to put judgment or to say that anybody is in trouble. It’s just a way of starting a process for us and to make sure that we’re doing our duty in opening those discussions with families. What our next step would be is that we would put into place what we refer to as a behaviour management plan. It sounds very scary and scary and daunting. And it and like the child who has bitten someone has an issue. It’s not that at all. It’s rather making sure that we as a centre, are putting in place strategies and consistent strategies to be able to help the child and manage what is going on, and for us to identify what the triggers may be. Is it a sensory thing? Is it a communication thing? Is it a proximity thing? So that would be where we start that process. So what we would start off doing is really observing what’s happening before, during and after a biting incident. And sometimes, you know, it can be you’d notice a pattern that it’s actually happening just before morning tea. And maybe we need to feed that child a bit sooner. Or maybe they’re hungry and they can’t tell us that, you know, maybe they are teething. And we notice that they’re actually putting a lot of things in their mouth and trying to get some relief, or they’re experimenting with a lot of different things in their in, you know, orally. Maybe we noticing that it is happening towards the end of the day when they’re tired and they’re less able to regulate their behaviour and their emotions. So they’re all the things that we, we look for and then based on what we observe, then that then determines what our course of action is going to be. So if we have a child who is you know, say 18 months, it will nine times be out of out of ten, be a sensory thing going on. So we would do our observations. We would note that. And then as a team, generally the the educators in the room, and they might sit down and consult with Zoe or one of our educational leaders. They would then put into place a plan. So what they might do is they might make sure that they have teethers in their pockets at all times, and they would shadow the child once again. Sounds daunting. It’s not. It’s just making sure that we’re following that child so that we are able to block any potential biting incidents. So when we can see that the child is leaning in with their mouth open, we put ourselves in between the two children and explain to the child who’s about to bite, I won’t let you bite. If you want to bite on something, you can have this teether, apple, whatever we have decided on in consultation with, with the family.

Zoe (09:46):
Anything that will give them the same urge that they’re after at the time.

Tracy (09:50):
Yeah, to yeah, fulfil that urge. Satisfy it. Yeah. So that would be what we would do. And we would consistently do that and hopefully empower that child to either ask or go get that teether themselves when they’re feeling that urge, which they will do. They absolutely have the capability and the capacity to do that. Obviously, there’s going to be times where an educator isn’t going to be able to get themselves between the two children in time, and that happens. In that moment, we we don’t shame the child. We don’t, you know, exclude the child or anything like that. What we would do is in an age appropriate way, discuss how what happened wasn’t the right way to do things, still provide them with something that they, you know, next time you need to bite, please ask for the teether. Sometimes we even put a teether on them somewhere so they can access that. So we remind them of that, and then we might ask them to participate in the care of the child who has been bitten. We wouldn’t force that, but we would, you know, can you go with Joey to go get the ice pack for Sammy? Something like that. So that they they’re, you know, developing those those empathy and understanding that there, there has consequences to their behaviours.

Zoe (11:09):
I think it’s really important to point out that in that instance both children need as much care from us. So the child who has been bitten and the child who has bitten. Yeah. So we definitely try to have an educator to go to both of those children in that moment.

Tracy (11:25):
Yes, absolutely. Where we would sit back and do our observations and we notice that the a biting incident springs from more of a communication or a frustration point of view. Generally, this will be with our older toddlers, three-year-olds. That is where. So on top of having those shadowing and those blocking techniques I guess, or strategies, sorry in place, we would also start to think of other ways that we could help the children and discuss with the children about other alternatives. So when you’re feeling angry, stomp your feet instead of biting. And we would practice that or squeeze a ball or to be honest, yell, yell. It’s better than biting.

Zoe (12:13):
I was just going to say.

Tracy (12:14):
You know, anything that doesn’t involve you physically touching the other child, we will take at this point. Yeah. And, and we would still have staff staying as close as possible to help intervene and coach the child through those moments, as much as possible. If we could see it was a communication problem, we would have a look at it and, you know, determined if there was some sort of a language delay that wasn’t typical for a child of that age, and if so, you know, we would have a very honest discussion with families about maybe seeking some outside intervention such as speech pathology, things like that, but also within the centre, we would do quite a lot to try and help develop some strategies for the child to use in lieu of that. So we might use picture cards for the child can use and feel safe to hold up a red card and say stop, I can’t take any more.

Zoe (13:11):
We do social stories sometimes to to help them. So a social story is where we sit. We take photos with the child so that they understand some strategies that they can use in that moment. And so we do, the social stories are read to the child outside of the time where this has happened. So it kind of starts to build in some ideas in their mind about what they can do in those moments when it is that that kind of lizard brain may have jumped into play.

Tracy (13:40):
Yeah, yeah. And if it’s a communication issue too, we would have the staff there role modelling or helping the child express what they’re trying to say, sort of by having a conversation. Oh, Zoe, I can see that you want the truck as well. Tommy has the truck. What can we do to solve this problem? Or, you know, Zoe, you will have to wait until Tommy has finished with the truck. And then in terms of the going through that process, it’s the same with the littlies that the child who has done the biting and the child who has been bitten require the same amount of care. And we would encourage the child who has bitten the other child to participate in the care of the child who has been bitten as much as they are able and willing to in that moment. So with that, I guess what we try and do as a staff as well, is to make sure that we are responding to these incidents in a calm and consistent manner. As I’ve said before, it can be quite distressing when an biting incident has occurred, especially as I said, if the child’s obviously who’s been bitten, obviously very upset, they’re hurt. Sometimes it has broken the skin, so there’s blood and things to deal with. But our job is to as much as we may be feeling that adrenaline rush ourselves about what’s going on is to be calm, because that is how we’re going to help regulate the children around us. If we are at a heightened state. And this goes for at home as well, if you’re heightened because you’re like, oh, no, not again. You know, we have to regulate ourselves before we can go in and effectively help both sides of of the incident. With this, we also really need a really consistent approach, which is why we do the behaviour management plans. It’s all educators at the service are aware of what are the steps. And if we follow those steps, you know, A, B, c every time it happens, it just helps that child realize that this is what happened, how it happens, I don’t. It doesn’t become a power play, or an experiment to see what kind of reaction I’m going to get because I know what reaction I’m going to get. I know what’s going to happen next. And so it sort of just takes that out, that element out of it.

Zoe (15:53):
And also I was just going to add there, Tracy something that I quite often chat with parents about is, is that if your child does have one of these behaviour management plans, we will inform you when incidents happen. But I always say to parents to please just leave that for us. It’s a it’s a here problem, not a home problem. So there’s no point in rehashing the whole incident when you get home with your child or putting in place any kind of consequences at home. Because we have already dealt with it here, and it’s something that has happened in this space. So we will tell you the information, but please don’t feel like you have to act on it in any way.

Tracy (16:33):
That’s right. Because the time gap between when the incident happens and when the child is at home, they won’t naturally connect the two incidents. And we are, you know, obviously consulting with families, getting their opinions, getting their advice, what works for their child, things like that. And letting you know what we’re doing here in case those behaviours start to show up at home. Because sometimes they do they they do have a go at biting mum or dad or something. So you’re aware of how we dealt with it. The other thing I wanted to just mention there too, is that sometimes on the internet, you’ll read that some parents on parenting forums and things say, oh, just bite your child back. I did that and my child never bit again. Please don’t do that. The lesson that that is teaching a child is that that it’s okay to bite, that when I’m frustrated because no doubt, when you’re at that point with your child, you are feeling frustrated, you were not regulated, that that is an inappropriate way to deal with that. So we would encourage you not to choose that as your behaviour management technique, I guess.

Zoe (17:39):
I guess the other thing that you may have noticed during our podcast is we always refer to it as a the situation is a child who bites or a child who has been bitten, rather than saying things like biter or bite-e. And that’s because we want to separate the child and their behaviour.

Tracy (17:58):
Yes, that’s right, the child does a lot more in their day than biting. And it’s a temporary behaviour that they will work through. We don’t want to be labelling anybody as anything. And, you know, I just want to reassure parents that it’s equally upsetting for the parents of the child who has been bitten, as it is for the child who has been, who has done the biting. Quite often we have parents who say, I’d much rather my child be bitten than be the biter. And and it’s not nice for anyone on either end. But that’s why we wanted to do this podcast, to assure everybody that it is a really normal, and that we deal with it more often than what you think, and that we do take it very, very seriously. And that we do everything we can to prevent it happening in our setting. I just wanted to quickly jump back as well, Zoe, to what we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, with quite often the first instances of biting behaviour being maybe children who are breastfed. So I just wanted to quickly touch on how we would deal with that. Obviously, we’re not breastfeeding children here at the surface, but for those parents who are what we would recommend is that so say that you’re feeding and the child bites, or you know, toddler infant bites you. You would quite firmly say, I won’t let you bite me if you bite me again, that’s telling me you’ve had enough or that you’re finished and then, you know you’d give it another go. And if they bite you again, or that’s it, that’s done. They’re obviously not interested. If they’re up to the point that they’re just playing, experimenting, teething, maybe. So they’re not really hungry, they’re needing that for that comfort. So you would just take them off, offer them something to chew on if that’s what they want. And then, you know, you might go back if you think they’re hungry, you know, half an hour later and try again. But, you know, make it really clear that you sort of explain to them if it happens again, just use that one chance and then take them off. If they’re still, you know, doing it sort of consistently and they have teeth, it might be a sign that they’re ready to, to move on to the next phase of their, their feeding journey, that they may not be looking for that anymore, necessarily.

Zoe (20:15):
Thanks for that, Tracy. I think that’s probably a good start for everyone with this topic. If you have any questions or would like further information, you can always reach out to us and we’ll put up a few links with our podcasts as well.

Tracy (20:29):
Fantastic. Thanks, Zoe.

Zoe (20:31):
Thanks, Tracy.