Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Behaviour

How can I stop my 17-month-old from biting?

At almost 17 months, my son has taken to biting my nanny and I when he doesn’t get his own way. He has been on CLB routines since birth. He sleeps well, loves being in his cot and on the whole is a happy toddler. But when he doesn’t want to be changed (especially after his bath) or is told “No”, he bites. I have told him sternly that we don’t bite, but this behaviour has continued for a month. Tonight I lost my patience and yelled at him, a response that I feel guilty about, but how can I deal with the problem without yelling?

Toddlers who bite are not uncommon, but this behaviour needs careful handling. Yelling is not the answer, as you know, but the tone of voice you use is important. Learning how to discipline your son fairly is all part of parenting.

Firstly, he has to learn that you are serious when you say, “We don’t bite” or “Biting hurts”. Remain calm, but pitch your voice lower so he gets the message. When you speak to him, make sure you are at eye level and, if necessary, hold his hands so he has to look at you. Encourage your nanny to do the same, as a consistent approach to the problem will be more effective.

It is also important to find out what triggers your son to bite. With toddlers, it is usually an impulsive action triggered by frustration, anger or tiredness. Once you are aware of the causes, then you can try to avoid them. Watch his body language carefully so you are aware of what he looks like and how he behaves just before biting.

At this age, your son will be very active by day and tired by bath time. If you could bring bath time 15-20 minutes forward and avoid noisy splashing games, he is less likely to be over-stimulated when it is time to get dressed. You could try giving him a special toy to hold, one he only gets at this time, to keep him occupied while you get him ready. Or you might try singing, or quietly chatting about your plans for the next day.

Otherwise, use distraction to diffuse a situation that might escalate into a biting episode. Limiting the amount of times you say “No” is not easy at this age, but it helps to divert his attention away from doing something, rather than always using “No”. Hearing this word too often will result in frustration, which in turn may lead to another biting episode. If you feel he is getting frustrated, then suggest a time of quiet play, such as doing a jigsaw or looking at a book together. It is also important to make sure that your son has plenty of outside play with the chance to let off steam.

When your son has behaved well, be sure to point out that you have noticed his good behaviour. If, for example, you manage to change him without fuss, thank him and compliment him on staying still. This positive attention will help to build his self esteem and should limit the times he feels frustrated when something is denied to him.

You should also show plenty of affection and offer lots of cuddles. Indulge in role-play with teddies to help him become aware of how much nicer it is to be kind and how good he will feel as a result. Also be aware of any adult behaviour that may give mixed messages. It is all too easy to play pretend “nibbling” when drying a child after his bath, for example by saying “These toes look good enough to eat”, but I would advise against this type of game as, when biting, he may be trying to imitate you.

In conclusion, biting is a phase which is common around this age. As a toddler grows and becomes more verbal, he will be able to use words to express his feelings, and frustrations will lessen. Until then, a firm but calm approach to the problem and an awareness of potential flash points should help.