Q. We have just had a new baby son and all is going well. We have an older girl (21 months) who loves her baby brother and gives him lots of hugs and kisses and shows him so much affection. However, there is just one thing that she started yesterday and that was biting. She was being a bit rough with baby and I asked her to be gentle and she tried to bite me. I did the whole calming talk and told her biting was bold and we just moved on with what we were doing. But I fear this is now the start of something and would like try and address it before it develops into something more, ie biting other children. I would appreciate if you could give me some tips on how best to handle the situation.
A. When you first encounter your child biting, it is understandable to be a little shocked as biting can be perceived as a worrying behaviour. The fact that your child has bitten can conjure all sorts of worries in your mind as to whether it will become a habit, whether he/she will go on to bite other children and get into trouble, etc. However, biting is relatively normal and common in young children under two and is generally a phase they grow out of.
Young children bite for a variety of reasons: sometimes it is simply a sensory response, as most things are put into their mouth for tasting and testing; sometimes it because they are angry and they don’t know another way yet of expressing their frustration; sometimes it is a playful response and simply a way, albeit painful, of getting your attention; sometimes they are copying a behaviour they have seen.
To help your daughter grow out of biting, the first step is to “tune into” her and to think what was going on for her. In your situation, it is sounds like it was an angry response to being corrected about her rough play and she might have interpreted as you favouring the baby over her. Young children are very competitive for their parents’ attention and it would be very normal for her to feel jealous of the new baby, even though she is also showing great love and affection towards him.
It is very important to be sensitive to her jealousy of her younger brother. If you do find that she is being rough with the baby, make sure to positively redirect her rather than criticise or correct her. For example, you can say in a very positive tone, “Let’s be gentle with the baby”. You might have to take her hand and show her how to stroke or hold the baby gently and as you do this you can praise and encourage her saying, “You are such a good girl, being so gentle”. In addition, make sure to make a big fuss of other times she is kind to the baby, saying, “What a great big sister your are”. This way you really encourage her positive feelings towards the baby and let her know that she still gets your positive attention.
The best way to avoid a one or two year old biting in the future is to be vigilant and to notice situations where she might be at risk of doing so. The key is to be tuned into your daughter’s signals and feelings, so you can anticipate what is going to happen and get in early to avoid a problem. For example, if you spot her becoming frustrated with her baby brother (say in the future when he starts taking her toys), you can get in early either to soothe her, “It’s hard playing with a little brother, but you’re doing a great job sharing”, or to distract her, “Come now, you can play with the dollies over here”.
On other occasions, it might be best to take her brother away and to give her space to play with her own toys by herself: “Time now for big sister to play with the toys.” Over time, you want to encourage her to positively manage her little brother herself and to take pride being the big sister. You also want to encourage her, if she is upset or annoyed to come to you for support any time she needs it.
There will be times, of course, when prevention doesn’t work and occasions when you can’t divert her in time before she bites. In these instances, a calm approach like you describe in your question is important. Simply say, “No biting”, once in a firm voice and then distract her away to do something else. You could also introduce a mild consequence such as stopping the game or separating her briefly from you or the other child.
However, be wary about making a big fuss or over-criticising her as this can make her feel more resentful of her brother and may actually reinforce the biting behaviour. Instead, remind your daughter of the behaviour you want to see: “We all play like friends in this house”, or “Let’s be gentle now”, or “When you play nicely, then you can play the game again”. Such a positive approach is likely to reduce the incidents of biting and as she grows older she is likely to learn other positive ways to express her feelings.
Problems related to sibling rivalry are the most frequent I see clinically, as brothers and sisters naturally compete for their parents’ attention. The key to helping your children get on together in the long term is to make sure to spread your love and attention generously.
In addition, you must never take one child’s side over the other and, in particular, never criticise or undermine one in front of the other. Instead, the goal is to be seen to be on both their sides, to take time to support their relationship with each other and to teach them how to sort out their disputes and differences together.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, June 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.