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Month 15 Worry: Is My Biting Toddler Normal?

Your 15 month old is well adjusted, doesn’t seem stressed, and is well nourished. So why is he aggressively gnawing on his little friend at playgroup?

What’s the Issue?

Biting, hitting, pinching, and hair pulling are common 15-month-old behaviors and certainly aren’t an early indicator of sociopathic behavior. But when it is your child who is the biter, or worse yet the bitee, you may feel pressured to spring into action. But what can you do?

Consider the Numbers

In my practice, there’s nary a week that passes without my receiving a frantic toddler-parent call about this issue. And research of slightly older kids suggests the problem lingers for a while: In one North Carolina survey, 6 percent of preschoolers bit or pinched another student at least once per week. Males and females exhibited all anti-social” behaviors in equal numbers. (So the idea of the aggressive boy stereotype doesn’t seem to hold true.) And 40 percent of all preschoolers exhibited at least one anti-social behavior each day. So your little Dracula is in good company!

What Parents Can Do

Keep your toddler’s behavior in perspective: Physically, right now is a trying time: His motor skills are immature; he may not be walking with much stability yet. And his speech musculature is a bit immature, as well. He may be struggling to make basic “m,” “k,” or “l” sounds.

Developmentally, 15-month-olds bite and hit others as a means of communication (usually communicating their frustration) and reaction-seeking. For example, a toddler certainly wouldn’t be expected to verbalize his significant fatigue since getting through the last holiday when his sleep schedule was off. He might just bite. Or a toddler may bite another child and immediately stare wide-eyed as his victim screams. (A similar reaction could be observed in an older child who tips over the first of a line of dominoes and watches in fascination as the others fall successively.)

Knowing that your child is not biting simply because he loves the taste of blood may be reassuring. If the behavior continues despite distraction and redirection and if adult caretakers are having difficulty handling the behavior, consult your pediatrician. And certainly check with your pediatrician if your child has other complicating developmental issues such as Down syndrome or Autistic Spectrum Disorder. In these instances, dealing with such behaviors can be a little more complicated.

What the Docs May Do

Your pediatrician will likely reassure you regardless of whether your child is the biter or the biting victim—this just isn’t a behavioral catastrophe, although it may feel like one! Toddlers with developmental delays, especially expressive language delays, are more likely to act out physically in my experience. This should be considered when assessing the situation.

The biting child who is aiming his teeth at his parents should be ignored, as much as possible. I gave this advice for many years before my first toddler bit me one night. No reason, just out of the blue during reading time. As I let out a yelp, my advice of “ignoring it” came flooding back to me through my tearing eyes. Your best attempt to distract and redirect is still the mainstay of advice. If ignored, the behavior will gradually disappear or “extinguish” as the behavior experts like to term it.

The biting child who is recurrently sinking his teeth into little Rebecca in playgroup needs to be handled a little more delicately. Although removing the biter from the situation is advised, raising of voices, slapping or biting the child back, or other punitive approaches (called negative reinforcement) can actually reinforce the behavior.

I also tell parents that a daycare provider who is stumped or surprised by biting behavior worries me a bit. This is such a ubiquitous behavioral issue that almost all experienced daycare providers of this age group have handled it many times over.

More 15th Month Health Help

Even the most confident parent has concerns about her child’s health and wellness from time to time. (If you have any pressing concerns or questions about your baby’s health, please check with her healthcare provider.)

  • What was last month’s most popular health worry?
  • Learn which medical question you might have next month.
  • Here’s what else is happening with your baby’s health and development this month.
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