My wonderful, adorable grandson is 16 months old. He was just in for a 12 day visit from LA. He has started biting his mom and dad when he puts his head on their shoulder or leg–not always but often. It seems to be a sign of affection for him as he smiles broadly when he does it. He is still getting some side and back teeth, so I thought it might be teething. He doesn’t seem to do it with anyone else. They say “no!” firmly and put him down for a minute, but that doesn’t seem to stop him.
His mom had been away for one week and then two weeks later, he came east and has been alternating between bubbie’s house, savta’s house, and an aunt’s house–his parents have been with him the whole trip back east, except for a wedding one evening.
The first thing I note is all the change which has been taking place in the last few weeks; this will certainly destabilize a small child and could well lead to all sorts of stress-related behaviors.
Babies and toddlers bite for many reasons–curiosity, teething discomfort, frustration, power-seeking, and stress. Certainly a 16-month-old is in the throes of teething. The molars and those tricky canines (eye-teeth) can cause him pain and make him likely to want to chomp onto something for relief; but this sort of ‘smiling bite’ sounds more like a psychological rather than physiological reason.
Biting is so powerful–so much outcome for so little effort! The jaw muscles involved are the strongest in the body, the pain response in the victim so rewarding, so dramatic, that the behavior can become quite addictive. Whatever the initial reason for biting, once the perpetrator has felt the power rush that can come with such a little effort, the habit can be hard to break.
So why is this particular child biting? Put yourself in his cute little shoes for a minute. Mommy had been away for one week (16 months = 64 weeks, so 1 week is 1/64 of his whole life–what’s that in adult time? 6 months? A year?) and then came back. What must little children, with no concept of time, think? ‘Whoa! You’re back?! I thought you were gone forever!’ But he adjusted to that. Then what? 2 weeks later, an airplane! A strange kindly woman! Another one! No, 3! And 3 different homes! What else, a baby-sitter? ‘Who am I? where am I? Who are all these people that come in and out of my life?’ he wonders.
Lucky that 16-month-old babies aren’t laying down serious long-term memory (not that being hugged and kissed and fussed over would really qualify as trauma) and that the infant brain is so plastic and adaptable; but it’s still stressful.
But in all this confusion, what is real and what is here? His mouth, with which he explores his world; his gums which are a bit sore and relieved by a good chew; his lovely, soft mommy or daddy’s neck; and his message: I AM HERE. And DON’T YOU FORGET IT. And maybe I’M A LITTLE MAD AT YOU, TOO! And then, HEY, THIS FEELS GOOD!
What to do?
Firstly, in dealing with biting, NEVER bite back; this gives the worst message to a child and is an abuse of power.
Mom/Dad should say in a firm, no-nonsense voice, ‘NO. Biting HURTS.’ and put him down. Needless to say this has to be 100% consistent, as with all behavior-modifying exercises.
I don’t think time-out is appropriate at this age, especially as we think he is reacting to stress. Offer him something safe to bite on, such as a teething toy or soft toy or blanky, so he can express his frustration without injuring anyone. And then give him a hug and tell him how much you love him.
I think it’s also good to commiserate with him, talk about his teeth and his sore gums and how Mommy went away and he must have been sad… verbally debrief with him and reassure him. He may be non-verbal, but he understands enough, if not everything. He will be verbal soon and this is good practice in using words, rather than violence, to express feelings. That’s what we all want from our kids and ourselves, isn’t it?