Children biting at nursery: How should you react?

Fiona Bland

Biting can be very upsetting for children, their families and staff, but it does happen. It’s important for nurseries to know why this happens and to deal with it effectively. NDNA Early Years Expert Fiona Bland is on hand to help. 

Why do children bite?

For many children, biting can be a normal part of their development. Babies bite objects as a means to exploring the world. When teething, biting into objects can help to relieve the pain and discomfort.

There are of course many other reasons children may bite: 

  • To express emotions like anger, frustration and fear, when vocabulary hasn't been developed yet
  • To gain attention
  • In self-defence if they feel threatened
  • As an extension of natural curiosity – what happens if I do this to someone?
  • As a satisfying a need for oral stimulation to self-regulate, relieve anxiety or cope with stressful situations.

Unfortunately, biting can be a common occurrence as many children pass through this particular stage of development.

Although many babies bite objects as a matter of course, older children can continue biting well into school life.

The most typical age range for biting is toddlers, who are struggling to deal with big feelings and don’t have sufficient vocabulary to express themselves verbally. 

It is therefore important for you to acknowledge this and have clear strategies to minimise incidents and ensure staff can respond sensitively to incidents of biting in order to reduce the distress for all involved as quickly as possible.

How can you reduce the likelihood of a child biting another in the first place?

With lots of reasons why children may bite, and the speed in which a biting incident can happen, even if you have a range of strategies in place to minimise incidents, it can still be impossible to eliminate it completely.

Next time an incident takes place, ask yourself: 

  • Does it tend to happen at specific times of the day e.g. lunch time?
  • Are they arguing over a precious object such as a favoured toy?
  • Is the child seeking some oral stimulation?
  • Is the child unable to verbalise their feelings?

You should gather as much information about each incident so you can plan which strategies to use, to reduce further incidents. Sitting a staff member next to the child at the lunch table or, for a child seeking oral stimulation, providing crunchy snacks throughout the day or chew toys to provide the stimulation a child may need. 

How do you broach the subject with parents?

It’s natural for parents of both the biter and the child who has been bitten to get very upset, so you need to acknowledge their feelings. 

How should you address the family of the child who has been bitten?

  1. Contact the parents before they arrive to pick up their child if they have been injured, so they can be prepared rather than express their shock and upset in front of the children
  2. Explain to the parents how the nursery deals with these incidents and why
  3. Reassure the parents that you have effective strategies in place to reduce the number of incidents.

How should you address the family of the child who has bitten another child?

  1. Explain that biting is a form of communication and although distressing, is a stage of development that many children pass through. 
  2. Find out if there have been incidents of biting outside of nursery and if there have been any changes that may be affecting their child. 
  3. Share the strategies you have in place to prevent and minimise biting and agree a joint approach.
  4. If they have bitten previously, take more time to share your methods of dealing with the child in the immediate aftermath.
  5. Talk to them about how to support their child to develop empathy with others. 
  6. Make sure you include what they should never do, such as physically scold the child or even bite them back to see what it feels like. This can only add to the child and family’s distress

Baby biting toy rabbit

More support:

Promoting Positive Behaviour online course

Promoting Positive Behaviour publication

Promoting Positive Behaviour factsheet

Promoting Positive Behaviour quiz

Understanding children’s behaviour blog post

Baby biting child's finger

You should not promise to eradicate these incidents completely as this is not going to be possible​​.

​​Exclusion due to biting:

You should not exclude a child due to biting as biting can be a natural part of a child’s development.

You should try to identify why a child is biting, what are they communicating? And put strategies in place to help minimise the incidents of biting. 

It’s important to make sure that you work closely with the family of any child that is going through a stage of biting, to share information and strategies in order to provide a consistent approach.

What’s included in NDNA’s course about it?

Look at the reasons behind biting and how to manage incidents more effectively in NDNA's online course "Biting: Responding Sensitively". It is useful for nursery practitioners, but can be used by parents too. 

In the course, you'll get a step-by-step guide for dealing with an incident of biting and helpful strategies to minimise incidences such as talking to the children about strong feelings, creating calm spaces and supporting emotional regulation.

​Access biting course

Fiona Bland
This blog post was written by Fiona Bland, NDNA Early Years Expert

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