How to cope with toddlers who bite and punch

Toddler biting

As well as tantrums, you might find your toddler develops an aggressive streak. This is more common in boys during late toddlerdom. Biting and punching can be stressful for parents, so we've listened to Mumsnetters to come up with this guide to how to tackle the problem.

Many of the tactics for dealing with toddler aggression are similar to those for dealing with tantrums (regular snacks, exercise, advance warning about plans).

But it's hard to ignore a small child headbutting you in the groin when you're signing for a recorded delivery parcel or dialling into a meeting while working from home. Nevertheless, it's important to try to keep your cool.

Some children use aggression to get attention. They may hit out for the first time for some other reason, but once they see the gratifyingly colourful reaction from the adult looking after them, they decide it might be fun to repeat it.

The difficulty for parents is that these episodes of aggression often happen in social situations – at playgroup or during playdates.

Give the other child – the one who has been injured – lots of attention. Then, after asking your child in a low, firm voice to say sorry and telling them not to do it again, distract them with something else. This gets across the message that hitting isn't going to get them attention.

Biting is very common. Don't feel ashamed and embarrassed, but do talk to your child and reinforce the message that it isn't nice to bite.

Why do toddlers bite?

Children can start biting from a few months old, although a baby testing out his single tooth is not the same as a two-year-old sinking his full set of gnashers into your arm. Biting is common in toddlers and, just because your little one is a bit bitey now, doesn't mean he's destined to grow up to be Luis Suarez.

Experts believe toddlers bite out of fear or frustration. This can coincide with illness or disruption in their lives, anything that alters their routine, and they are also prone to bite if they're missing out on contact time with you. Children might bite when they're over-excited or it could be a way of lashing out, letting another child know they're too close to them.

Some children bite simply because they are teething. Others bite their siblings which can be distressing for you. The birth of another baby is a major upheaval in the life of a child and biting is common among children who suddenly find themselves sharing their parents' attention for the first time.

Other reasons for biting include tiredness, your toddler's desire to test boundaries and frustration at not being able to articulate their feelings – after all, toddlers have a limited vocabulary and violence is often the last resort of those who lack the words to communicate.

Most children will, at some point, bite and be bitten. Whether your child is the one biting, or being bitten, don't panic, there are plenty of things you can do to put an end to it.

How do I stop my toddler biting?

First of all, avoid shaming your child. Don't call him a biter – and try not to label other children in this way, even if they've bitten your child – as labelling can be counterproductive, causing the child to live up to his bad reputation.

If your toddler bites another child

Make a fuss of the injured party. Showing concern for the other child, can help to teach your child empathy.

Then turn your attention to your toddler. Look him in the eye and explain in a clear and firm tone that biting is unacceptable. Tell him that biting hurts. Does he want to hurt people? How would he like it if somebody hurt him?

Keep your mixed emotions – anger, embarrassment, disappointment – in check, as losing your temper will prevent you from communicating effectively with your toddler.

I followed my toddler around and, if he tried to bite other kids, I very loudly told him: 'No biting!' Then I put him in his buggy facing the wall for five mins.

If your toddler bites you

It's sometimes harder to conceal the agony, but try to keep your reaction minimal. Do not retaliate – that will hurt your toddler, leave you feeling guilty and set a bad example that's likely to result in your toddler biting again.

Instead, give your child alternatives. Tell him not to bite, hit or pinch but to kiss, stroke or cuddle you instead – show him what you mean and then give him heaps and heaps of praise and attention when he does it. It might not work straight away, but it will work eventually, and at least you'll get a cuddle in the meantime.

What Mumsnetters say about toddler aggression

“If my son makes a swipe at me I just tell him firmly that we don't hit other people, then perhaps try to distract him. If he is really kicking off, I usually ask him to go and sit somewhere to calm down.”

“My son went through a biting phase at nursery. I suggested staff record each incident, making a note of the time and circumstances. Observations can lead us to work out whether there is a pattern of behaviour and how best we can support a child.”

“I went through a long period of biting with my son from around 18 to 30 months. It was mostly me he bit. In the end, I told he would get a smack every time he bit me and within a week he stopped. It was a last resort, as I was so fed up of being covered in welts and he was starting to bite other children at playgroup.”

“My eldest son has never been particularly aggressive but we have a real problem with him biting his baby brother. He doesn't bite anyone else. It's not done in anger which is what makes it hard to deal with and prevent.”

“My eldest son kept biting his younger brother, so we introduced a scheme where he had about five Smarties in a cup and, every time he bit his brother, a Smartie was removed. If he did anything really good, we added a Smartie to the cup and he got to eat whatever was left in the cup each evening before bed. The biting stopped and we phased out the Smarties after a couple of weeks.”