Biting babies

Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, CCRN, is a registered nurse at Children’s Hospital Boston. As a pediatric nurse, counseling worried mothers is a big part of her practice, but when it comes to her own daughter, she admits that following her own advice isn’t always easy.

Sophie poised to strike?

My daughter Sophie has always been strong-willed, or “spirited”, as my husband and I prefer to call it. It’s a quality we try to embrace because we feel it’s important to set limits for our kids without dimming their light, and accept our children’s innate personalities for who they really are. It sounds like a great parenting technique, doesn’t it? It took our first major challenge to realize that progressive child-rearing principles are easy to implement when the sea is calm, but maintaining those principles when the going gets rough is a different story.

One day, out of the blue, Sophie started biting. The victim was our nanny’s son. This was a problem on many levels; it was terribly embarrassing for us as parents, but we were also terrified of losing our very wonderful (and affordable) nanny.

Fortunately our nanny agreed to tough out Sophie’s biting phase with us, and we’re lucky she did because it turned out to be quite a battle. We tried all sorts of methods to get Sophie to stop, but nothing seemed to work. The more we failed the more desperate for a solution we became. It’s amazing how quickly we can forget everything we know professionally when faced with our own personal challenges. If one of my patients’ mothers asked me about biting, I would have reassured her that the behavior is natural. I also would have suggested a few coping strategies and tell the mom not to expect the behavior to disappear over night. But when my own daughter was the biter, I felt frantic, powerless and desperate for a quick fix. It was almost as if everything I learned as a nurse had gone right out the window.

Sophie hides her former weapons of choice

My husband and I traversed the Internet for solutions. UPS memorized our address, handing over daily deliveries of parenting books, discipline expert books and “Teeth Are Not For Biting” books. We watched Super Nanny voraciously. We initiated the cliché, yet effective, “Time Out.” We talked to her about alternate ways to deal with frustration (this may seem a bit too advanced for a child of this age, but in Sophie’s case, talking about things often worked.)

After about a month and a half of consistent and repetitive interventions, Sophie stopped biting. Like a gale wind, the behavior blew out as strongly as it had blown in. We waited precariously for the next bite, but it never came.

Looking back, I find it interesting how at odds my personal and professional judgments were. My inner mom thought her firstborn child might be destined to become a juvenile delinquent; it was like she had lost control over the situation and felt vulnerable to judgment and criticism because of it. It was frustrating and even scary at times. But it took my inner nurse remind me that biting is a normal aspect of development, and with consistent steps you can eliminate the behavior.

For those of you without an inner nurse, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology suggests the following strategies for dealing with biting and other aggressive behaviors in toddlers:

  • Say “no,” immediately, in a calm but firm and disapproving tone.
  • For a toddler (1 – 2 years), firmly hold the child, or put him down until he calms himself.
  • For a young child (2-3 years) say, “biting is not okay because it hurts people.”
  • Do NOT bite a child to show how biting feels. This teaches the child aggressive behavior.
  • If biting persists, try a negative consequence. For example, do not hold or play with a child for five minutes after he or she bites.

If you’ve exhausted all solutions and the biting and aggression continues, it’s probably a good idea to bring the problem up with your pediatrician or pediatric nurse. They can reassure you, talk you down from the ledge, or suggest a new strategy. Trust me, they won’t be surprised or judgmental.

Meaghan and family

Today it is biting. Tomorrow it will be homework or boyfriends or sneaking out of the house. There is no telling how many books and resources I will pore through with the growing challenges I expect to face during our children’s development. But the truth is we will probably do what every parent, with or without medical training, has done over the ages. We will fudge through it, feeling sure only of our intent, and savor the good times while hoping for the best.

One thought on “Biting babies

  1. That’s really helped me as a qualified nursery nurse I know it’s natural for children to bite but because she s my child
    I’ve been really frustrated that I can’t stop her from soon it and think I’m going to have my hands full when she’s older. Reading this has reassured me that my child is normal after all and I shoul relax and enjoy her instead of constantly worry who she ll bite next!

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