By Dr Robert Needlman
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Young girl interacting with a baby

Ow! It can come as a shock when your baby pinches, bites or pulls your hair for the first time. What does it mean when your baby hurts you and what can you do?

At 6-9 months of age, your baby is stronger and more able to control her body. She can reach, grab, tug and bite. But she is still too young to be aggressive in the sense of intending to hurt. She is just beginning to connect cause and effect.

Your baby watches something dropped again and again, fascinated to discover that it always falls to the floor. For the same reason, your baby might grab your face again and again, because he finds your response interesting. He is still months away from connecting the look of pain on your face with the unpleasant sensations he sometimes feels himself.

Infants show anger very effectively with their faces and with their whole bodies. You can probably tell an anger cry from other cries. Your baby might show anger because she is hungry, tired or uncomfortable in some way. She might just need attention or to be cuddled. She is beginning to learn that her actions have predictable effects on the people around her. If she smiles and makes noises, she comes to expect that you will smile and talk back. If you refuse to respond in the expected way, your baby might show anger.

Angry feelings: 9-12 months

Every child has angry feelings from time to time. Pushing, grabbing or biting is usually just a baby’s way of trying to get something or to find out how something feels or tastes. Sometimes, though, you do see real anger. For example, when you take something away or when your child cannot do something that he wants to do.

When infants show intense negative emotions, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between anger, fear and discomfort. For example:

  • A 10-month-old who lashes out when dropped off at day care might need reassurance and more time to get used to separation from her parent.
  • Another 10-month-old who uncharacteristically cries and throws everything might just have an earache.
  • Some infants are easily overstimulated and can respond in ways that look aggressive, when in reality they are just overwhelmed or afraid.

Some parents find it hard to accept that their babies have a full range of emotions, positive and negative. For example, when their infants yell or hit out in anger, the parents laugh and say, ‘Isn't that cute. He’s mad’. These parents are uncomfortable with anger in their children, so they make a joke out of it. The babies, seeing their parents laugh, can come to think that their parents actually approve of their angry behaviour.

Between about 9-18 months, many infants develop a habit of grabbing their mother’s or their father’s face when they’re being held, or pulling at hair or earrings. Biting is normal behaviour for infants, who naturally explore the world with their mouths. So the goal is to teach them to know the difference between things they should bite (food, teething rings) and what they shouldn’t (people).

One way to manage this kind of behaviour is to anticipate the biting, pulling or grabbing and prevent it, while saying firmly and without a smile, ‘No biting. That hurts’. Babies want to please their parents because they love them. On the other hand, they are also drawn to explore and experiment. If your baby is very persistent, she might not stop right away.

The key is to accept the emotions for what they are and to set clear limits, even at very early ages, on aggressive behaviour.

You might be tempted to yell, slap or bite back. These actions would only startle your baby. Eventually he would learn to mimic them. He might even try the behaviour again, to see if it will produce the same intense reaction from you.

Biting a child back doesn’t stop biting. Instead a child is likely to learn by imitation to bite other people.

Use feeling words

When you talk with your baby, use emotional (or feeling) words, such as ‘mad’, ‘scared’ or ‘frustrated’, that seem to describe his state of mind at that moment. Of course, it will take years for those words and concepts to really sink in, but over time, the words you say will have more and more meaning.

Eventually, your baby – at age three or four, sometimes earlier – will be able to use those words to describe and take control of her own feelings.

Use gentle firmness

  • Respond to seemingly aggressive acts – hair pulling, biting, or pinching – with gentle firmness.
  • Unclamp your child’s hand (or mouth) from your arm, say something like ‘No hurting’.
  • If need be, put her down on the floor.
  • Let your expression be serious (no laughing, even if the behaviour seems somehow cute) but not overly shocked.
  • Pick him up soon, before he begins to fuss too much. Be prepared to repeat the whole procedure many times.
  • For assertive, highly intense children, it can take many repetitions before they learn the boundaries of what is acceptable.

When should this behaviour stop?

Even with the best, consistent teaching, toddlers might not stop biting, pinching, or pulling right away. A young child stops pinching momentarily in response to being told ‘no’. In a few moments, though, she might be back at it again. Gradually, there is less and less of the aggressive behaviour.

By age two, pinching, biting and hair-pulling regularly appears in times of high frustration or stress. By age three, it’s rare.