Biting, pinching, hair-pulling: why babies and toddlers do it
Young children bite, pinch and pull hair to experiment and explore their environment.
For babies, biting, pinching and hair-pulling helps them work out cause and effect, usually at around 6-12 months.
For example, your baby bites you and then watches to see what you’ll do. If you laugh or make it into a game, she might try it again to see whether she gets the same reaction. If you get angry, she might be fascinated by your extreme reaction – which might also make her want to try it again!
Toddlers might hit, bite or pinch because they’re genuinely angry, upset or hurt. Sometimes it’s easier for them to do this than to use words to say what’s bothering them.
Some toddlers might hit, bite or pinch because they’re copying something they’ve seen other children do, or that other children have done to them.
Responding to biting, pinching and hair-pulling
It’s normal to feel embarrassed or even angry if your child hurts you or someone else by biting, pinching or hair-pulling – but how you react to the behaviour now can influence your child’s behaviour in the future.
When you stay calm and work out a constructive way to handle the situation, it helps your child learn about appropriate behaviour. A calm reaction from you is the first step towards promoting positive behaviour in the future.
How you deal with biting, pinching or hair pulling also depends on your child’s age.
Managing biting, pinching and hair-pulling in babies
Your baby is working out cause and effect. If he hits or bites you or pulls your hair, he’s probably just experimenting with his immediate environment.
If you give your child a clear verbal response, you’re clearly telling her that you don’t like what she’s doing. For example, you can say, ‘No’.
The next step is to remove your child’s hand (or mouth!) and turn away or put her down. When you do this, you take away attention from the behaviour. If your baby hits, bites or pulls your hair again, respond in the same way.
Babies will repeat behaviour that gets them a lot of attention. So as soon as your child shows a positive behaviour – for example, cuddling or gentle touch – reward him with lots of attention and praise.
Managing biting, pinching and hair-pulling in toddlers
If your toddler hits or bites other people or pulls their hair, working out the reason for your child’s behaviour is the first step. This means thinking through the possible causes of the behaviour, and asking whether the way you react could be making the behaviour worse.
For example, if your child is lashing out because she can’t find the words to explain her feelings, shouting at her won’t help. Instead try to stay calm on the outside – even if you don’t feel at all calm on the inside! This will teach your child about how to deal with frustration.
Often, this kind of toddler behaviour is about getting your attention. So taking your attention away from your child sends him a very powerful message about how you’re feeling. For example, you can turn away or move away from him.
If your child keeps biting, pinching or hair-pulling, show your child that you’re still in control. Stay calm, tell her briefly how the behaviour makes you feel and give her a consequence like a short time-out. You can use words like ‘No hitting! Hitting hurts. Time out’.
You can also teach your child ‘feelings’ words by saying something like, ‘You look like you’re feeling angry!’ This can help him learn how to use his words in the future.
You’ll need to keep doing this several times for your child to learn.
If your child bites someone else’s child, stay calm and get in quickly with an apology to the child and the other parent. Give your toddler verbal feedback – for example, you can say, ‘No! Biting hurts’. Then remove her from the situation for a brief time-out.
Depending on how upset the other child is, a short note or text to the parent to say sorry might also help.
Getting more help for biting, pinching and hair-pulling
Some children keep biting, pinching or hair-pulling no matter how hard you try to manage the behaviour.
If you’re feeling frustrated or exhausted or getting angry, or if the behaviour worries you so much that you stop doing things that you want to do – for example, seeing friends or going to the shops – it’s a good idea to get some help.
Your GP or child and family health nurse can get you started. If you need it, the GP or nurse can refer you to a child psychologist or paediatrician. These specialists can help you work out whether there’s a reason for your child’s behaviour that needs further assessment or a specific treatment plan.