Biting – Is it Sensory or is it Behaviour?
Biting in toddlers is a common challenge that many parents face. It leads us to question whether biting is sensory or behaviour based? As Occupational Therapists working with sensory toddlers this is something we deal with regularly. So while this can be a very emotionally overwhelming experience for parents there are reasons your child may be biting and there are tools that you can use to support him during this time.
The Sensory Side of Biting:
Some children use biting as a way to sensory sooth when their sensory system is overwhelmed. The biting provides their sensory system with a calming, deep pressure sense similar to the calming self-soothing that a pacifier or bottle gives a baby. The mouth is a particularly strong self-soothing organ and along with sucking and chewing, biting can be very effective. Even adults use the mouth to self-sooth when chewing on a pen or on gum. Some children are more sensitive than others and they will need more self regulation input than others to reach a calm state. Biting may meet the needs of sensory seeking children who need more deep pressure through their jaw, but will also help sensory sensitive children deal with multi-sensory environments which may be overwhelming for them. For a child who might be noise sensitive attending a noisy party, biting may help them to feel more grounded. Understanding the sensory reason behind a child’s biting will help you as a parent know how to best support them.
Tips to Support your Sensory Biter:
- Deep pressure – meet your sensory seekers need for more deep pressure, or support your sensory sensitive child’s need for self regulation. Give him lots of deep bear hugs, slow/firm arm squeezes and resting heavy hands on his shoulders.
- Rough and tumble play – the pulling and pushing of joints during this fun type of play is sensory calming for your child.
- Food/snack choices – meet your child’s need for biting by providing chewy, crunchy snacks. For example dried mango, biltong, apple slices, carrots, snack biscuits, rice crackers etc.
- Water bottle – choose a water bottle that requires your little one to suck hard on or that has a chewy straw.
- Thick liquid through thin straws – offer your child thick drinking yoghurt, custard or smoothie with a thin straw to encourage a strong sucking action.
- Watch for sensory cues – look for subtle signs that your sensitive child is becoming overwhelmed and offer sensory strategies BEFORE she feels the need to bite. These may include: an overly quiet child becoming very loud or visa versa; a loss of colour in their cheeks or becoming overly flushed; a wide-eyed startled gaze; nose picking or finger sucking; mouthing or chewing on toys, clothes or blankets; hiccups or yawning; withdrawing from others; whining; uncharacteristic bossy or controlling behaviour.
The Behaviour Side of Biting:
If while looking at the context of your child’s behaviour there is a major life change such as a new sibling, starting a new school, parent away on a work trip, moving house, loss of a family member or pet – his biting may have more of an emotional root cause. Other behavioural reasons your toddler may be biting include teething, object exploration, attention seeking and a difficulty expressing himself. In babies and toddlers expressive language develops slower than their receptive language skills. This means that they understand more than they are able to express and this can be very frustrating for them. Although we don’t want babies to hurt others or damage objects they bite, it is necessary to remember that mouthing objects is an important developmental step in learning the spatial and temporal qualities of the world around them.
Tips to Support your Emotional Biter:
- Be firm – set a clear boundary by using a simple, clear phrase in a firm, no-nonsense tone of voice (e.g. “no biting!” or “no hurting!”)
- Attention on the victim – be mindful to pay more attention to the victim than the biter and ensure that there is an apology (if not verbal then a hug or a high five).
- Provide teething relief – if your little one is teething ensure that you support her with teething toys, gum numbing solutions or cool snacks.
- Gentle exploration – teach your baby to mouth delicate objects softly and gently. Use words in a soothing tone along with soft tactile cues to help them understand this concept. For example saying “softly” while gently rubbing their arm.
- Tools to express wants, needs and feelings – if your little one is not yet able to verbally indicate what they need or how they feel encourage them to use non-verbal gestures or signs to avoid biting. Teach them the words they need to use by modelling this for them. For example “I see you are cross that Johnny took your toy”, “say please to Johnny”.
- Support major life changes – while your little one is going through this transition be sure to include nurturing play into their day. This child-led time may include dress up, role play, imaginary play, puppet play, creative/art play. Allowing your child this time to express themselves how they want to can support them in processing the change. Reading books together around the topic of the life change can also help them in this time. If they are struggling to express how they feel you can label the emotions for them or use a picture chart for them to identify how they are feeling so that they can feel heard and understood. Offering simple choices for your child to make can help her to feel that she has control in some areas when she may not have control in others (for example asking her to pick from 2 snack options or giving her the choice of which T-shirt she wants to wear).
If you have tried these tips and still feel like your child’s biting may not be resolving or it is getting worse you may want to connect with an Occupational Therapist or a Play Therapist to help you navigate the next steps.