Pediatrician Advice: What To Do When the Daycare Calls Your Child a Biter

Toddler girl biting adult's arm. A toddler can be unfairly called a biter.

Aggressive biting in toddlers is a normal developmental stage that adult reactions can prolong or shorten. Whether your Daycare labels your child a biter or handles biting with supportive limits makes all the difference.

It might surprise you how many parents have gotten a call from Daycare that goes something like this: “Your toddler is a ‘biter’ and we are starting him/her on a behavioral plan. We may have to expel them if they don’t stop.” Parents’ inital reaction is panic, of course. What will they do for child care if the daycare kicks their child out? Child care is just getting more expensive and harder to find.

Parents’ reactions to daycare calls about biters

Next comes fear about their child, the biter. Is something wrong with their child? The daycare obviously has experience with lots of children and if they are labeling this child a “problem biter” what does that mean? Do you have a bad kid? Does your toddler have a violence problem?

There can be a sense of helplessness. What are you supposed to do as a parent? After all, you are at work and can’t do anything about your child’s biting when you aren’t there. If the daycare can’t handle it, who can?

Other parents react with anger. How dare that daycare label your child as a “biter.” Don’t they know anything about child development?

Believe it or not, in this case the last question may be the most appropriate. Because based on what we know about child development, labelling a child negatively when they are biting and starting a punitive plan is an outdated and unhelpful approach.

This week in Forbes, I published the article What To Do When Daycare Labels Your Toddler A Biter: A Pediatrician Explains. In that piece I review the available science on toddler biting and which reactions from adults work best. In this blog post I’ll go over some practical highlights and how to use Sigh, See, Start to approach this issue.

What’s going on when toddlers bite?

Toddlers bite, pull hair, scratch, push, and hit among other violent behaviors. It’s all part of a normal stage in their development. This stage starts at 6 months old, and research shows that aggressive behavior increases as they get older, until it peaks at 24 months old. After that the behaviors decrease in frequency over the next couple of years… if the adults respond to it in a helpful way. In fact, 94% of infants and toddlers were found to engage in aggressive physical behaviors, regularly. This means that pretty much all kids could be labelled biters or hitters, which makes the label useless.

Overstimulated Toddlers Bite

One of the main causes of toddler biting is overstimulation. If they are getting too many sensory or social messages at once, it can be too much. Or if toddlers hit their limit emotionally, as when another child grabs the toy they were playing with, they can become overwhelmed.

Toddlers don’t yet have a lot of the tools we take for granted for handling overwhelming situations. They don’t have robust language skills yet–so it’s hard to “use their words” to express what is bothering them. And toddlers have not yet developed the areas in the brain that help us regulate emotions and impulses. When an older person feels suddenly angry or overwhelmed, their brain keeps them from breaking a window before they even think about it (usually). But for a toddler the emotion can go right into the action without time to think or decide.

Toddler Biting from overstimulation is about an overheated nervous system that’s triggered the fight or flight response. That’s something parents can help with by co-regulating with their toddler. The first step of co-regulation is making sure you as an adult are calm and collected, rather than getting revved up by your toddler’s mood and behavior. If you toddler is actively being aggressive to someone, physically remove them to safe space before doing this. In a moment we’ll look at how to use Sigh, See, Start to co-regulate.

Toddlers bite because it’s interesting.

Have you ever noticed how much fun young children have with actions that provoke responses? How much fun do they have pressing a buton that makes a toy beep? Or banging a pot with a cooking spoon to make a loud noise?

One of the biggest jobs kids have during development is to test the world around them and figure out how much impact they can have on that world. And because this is so essential to surviving inthe world, their young brains are wired to reward then whenever they can get a response to something they do.

This means that for some kids, biting can be fun and interesting. These biters may bite a bit more often than others until they learn better. That’s why as a pediatrician I’ve counseled endless numbers of breastfeeding mothers over the years: try not to scream when your baby bites you during feeding. Yes, it hurts, but if you have a big reaction you’ve just done something very interesting that the child may try to replicate.

Still, with physical aggression it’s not enough to simply be boring in your response. Your goal is to get your child to stop biting, or at least to set the stage for them to outgrow it at the normal age. Here’s a great time to use Sigh, See, Start.

Use Sigh, See, Start when your toddler bites.


Take a deep slow breath and let it go long and slow. If you are still feeling upset, do this two more times. Connect with your own body and your sense of leadership. Remember that the label biter could apply to any child and don’t let it rattle you.


See your toddler, see what you can of the situation. Observe what you can of any possible social triggers that may have provoked your toddler’s biting. Is your toddler handling any stimuli like being due for a nap or a meal? How is the environment? Is it calm and organized, or is it loud and busy? Does your toddler seem happy, distressed or withdrawn? Is their behavior or play fluid and organized or wild and disjointed? What is their body language?


Do your best to determine if your child was overstimulate, which you might think based on your child’s body language, emotional state, and if they are acting either wild or shut down. Both wildness or shutting down are signs of an overwhelmed nervous system.

If you think it’s overwhelm, try co-regulation. Speak calmly and melodically to your child. Offer to hold and soothe them in the way you’ve learned works for them. However, some kids get even more overstimulated by touch or talking if they are too wound up, so if you get that sense try to give them some quiet space until they settle down. If they are old enough and have some words for it, ask them if they have feelings and what they are. Once you feel they are calmer and connected to you, proceed to setting limits.

On the other hand, if your child seems happy and organized or even seems to have enjoyed biting, set limits.

To set limits on biting, calmly get at your child’s eye level, place your finger on their lips so they are clear on what you are talking about, and firmly (but without anger or threat) say, “No, No biting.” And stop there. Please do not add a paragraph about the importance of emotions or empathy. Kids need simple messages in order to process and remember them.

Setting limits on toddler biters does not work right away

Physical aggression is a behavior that increases up until age 2 years and then slowly decreases as kids learn other conflict managment skills later. That means that if a parent sets consistent limits on biting, their child “biter” will eventually stop, hopefully by age 3 or 4.

However, we do know that certain parenting mistakes lead to more and prolonged physical aggression in children. Please don’t spank, slap, bite, yell at or threaten your child when they are violent. All this does is teaches them that their parent is violent or aggressive and that’s the way to handle things.

When should parents ask the pediatrician?

Everything I’ve discussed so far is about the typical developmental trajectory of toddler. However, not every young child has typical development. Issues as simple as a speech delay can lead to more violent behavior in a child. Kids who can’t express themselves with words get frustrated and overwhelmed.

Some kids have sensory processing problems either in isolation or because they have a broader developmental delay or are on the autism spectrum. They may bite because it meets a sensory need. They also get more overstimulated and can react to the bad feeling that causes by going into fight or flight. This is essentially why many toddlers bite, but in kids with sensory sensitivities we can see more toddler biting.

Most kids with ADHD don’t get diagnosed until first grade, or at the earliest by age four. Many parents look back and remember that as infants and toddlers, their child with ADHD was more impulsive and therefore may have done more biting. Kids with ADHD also have sensory processing challenges in many cases, which only compounds the issue.

The key here is that all of these are neurodevelopmental differences that have nothing to do with the child’s moral character or self-control. Kids who bite more than others are NOT biters, they are kids with differences in their brains that can benefit from our help.

In this case I reccomend talking with your pediatrician about your child and asking for pediatric occupational therapy. Peds OT teaches kids how to notice what is going on with them and develop regulation skills. They learn in a body-based way to process their own emotions and the sensory environment.

Consider switching daycares

Lastly, a word of comfort. Time and time again I’ve counseled parents through the process of working with their daycare regarding their “biter.” What is truly amazing, and remarkably consistent, is how often simply moving the toddler to a new daycare fixes everything! Suddenly the problem “biter” is now a happy content little kid who never bites. And that just confirms that in most cases toddlers who are not overwhelmed and have a teacher who approaches them with supportive limits do just fine.

This blog post is purely for educational purposes and does not constitute medical advice.

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Author: Alison Escalante MD

Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer and Mother on a mission to help parents caught in the culture of criticism.

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