Helping a Toddler with Biting

(C) Christie Merrill 2007

I had cared for one toddler at my day care center throughout his infancy and we had shared many good and close times together.  He began biting other toddlers a few months after he had moved into the toddler room. It took our staff a week, and a couple of conversations with his Mom, before we came upon what we thought was a likely explanation for his biting. We noticed that he usually bit other children on Wednesdays and Fridays. We put that pattern together with the information that his mother had started an evening class that met Tuesdays and Thursdays, and that she didn’t see him at all those evenings.

We guessed that missing his mother was the tension behind the biting. He didn’t seem any more tense or upset than usual, and his good byes to her in the mornings happened without clinging or crying. So whatever feelings he had about evenings without his mommy weren’t showing up at our center.

We figured that the first task we had was to build a closer, warmer relationship with him, so that he could trust us more fully with his feelings. And we asked his mother to give some Special Time to him any morning that she could, and to come earlier, so she could spend some one-on-one time with him at our center before leaving. With a close 10-minute playtime before his Mom left, he would have the connection and reassurance he needed to allow himself to cry with her before she left, instead of holding in his feelings and biting others later.

So, on days when his mother had to leave quickly, we had a caregiver greet him warmly, and spend 5 or 10 minutes of Special Time with him at the beginning of the day. Then, a caregiver stayed within two feet of him, so that when he lunged for a child’s arm, she had a good chance of stopping him before he made contact. She would slide an arm around his tummy so he couldn’t reach any farther, and bring him over to her lap. He cried and struggled to get away, perspiring and working through his fears. If the caregiver had to leave him partway through to attend to another child he would sit on the floor looking forlorn. When she returned with warm words and the reassurance of her embrace he would struggle and cry some more. We found that if he could work in this way on his fears and sadness for about 15 minutes, he would emerge more cheerful, and would usually be able to make it through the morning without biting.

On days when his mother could spend time in our classroom before leaving, I would come in and join the two of them, and encourage the mom to follow his lead, but stay very close to him. I asked her to begin her good-bye at least 5 minutes before she actually had to go, so that I could help him actually look at her, encourage him to hug her and hold her tight, and help her reassure him that she would be back at the end of the day. I would also try to help him laugh, by saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do when your mommy comes back!”, holding him in my arms, running to a far corner of the room, then rushing up to her, saying, “Mommy, you’re back!” and putting him in her arms. He liked that game a lot! After a few days of solemn good-byes, he finally could cry when his mommy left. I stayed with him, kept telling him she would return and that she loved him, for as long as I could.

Several good-byes were tearful after that one, and over a period of many months of short opportunities to work through his fears, both when his mommy left and when we intervened before a bite, he grew gentler, trusted us more and was more easily able to simply cry when he was upset. His need to bite ended.

– Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand and Hand

You can read more about Parenting by Connection tools in the Listening to Children booklets or sign up for November’s free teleseminar “No More Hitting” with Patty Wipfler and Dr. Laura Markham from Aha! Parenting.

One thought on “Helping a Toddler with Biting

  1. I am loving this post. Thank you for your compassionate understanding and the deep care that you clearly have for the children in your care. I am so grateful to know that you’re doing this important emotional work with young people. Hooray!

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