Echoing the experts we’d already encountered in our own biting-themed research, Dr. Miller assured us that biting is quite common among children ages 1 to 3, and may be linked to many factors. Children bite because they are just starting to develop their language skills and emotional vocabularies, so it can be difficult for them to express their feelings. Biting is more likely to occur in faster-paced and highly stimulating environments. Not only was biting typical at our daughter’s age, Dr. Miller told us, it was also probably a phase, and one we could expect to see fade within a few months, or sooner.
I’d heard “just a phase” many other times during various parenting crises, and although those once hellish phases did pass (remember when she kept taking her diaper off during naptime?), I still had trouble remembering that these behaviors are finite. Her dad echoed my fears. “So, in the meantime…?” What were we supposed to do with our apparently feral child while she was still unpredictable in school?
Dr. Miller had plenty of strategies. “Keep reading those books with her,” she advised. Repetition is crucial at this age, she explained, because it helps young children internalize information. Talk to her teachers, and learn her patterns: When does she usually bite? Who is she around? What is happening immediately before and after the biting incidents? Demystifying the biting behavior will help to make it more manageable, and eventually empower her teachers to be proactive rather than reactive.
Dr. Miller also encouraged us to continue using our chart. “It will help for her to remember that there are rewards for behaving well,” she said. On the weekends, when we had more time, she asked us to set aside a dedicated hour of play: whatever she wanted to do, we were to go along with it, and let her take full control (within reason). At the end of the hour, Dr. Miller theorized, our daughter would feel more comfortable communicating emotions that might otherwise have remained smothered.
I’m not sure what the solution was, honestly; most likely, it was a combination of some of the above. Her dad and I made sure we set aside time for the three of us to hang, and we let her take the reins for a bit when we did. We cheered her on when she had good days at school, and we FaceTimed close family members so they could celebrate, too. We practiced calming strategies with her and tried to drive home the importance of playing nicely with friends. And, honestly, we bribed her. A lot. We were desperate, but we also knew patience and consistency would be the key.
By the end of the school year, the messages we received throughout the day were overwhelmingly positive. “We had another great day today, no biting!” I would read, and put my phone down with an explosive, happy sigh. “We” had had a great day, indeed.
This story was originally published on May 24, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
Carla Bruce-Eddings is a book publicist, freelance writer and mom to a fiery and opinionated 3-year-old girl.