Hi, Babs! My 8 month old recently started biting me, my husband, and even other kids at school. He's my first, and while I know this is normal behavior I'd love to know if there's anything I can do to help him move past this phase sooner than later? Thank you! - Maria, Boston, MA
Hi, Maria! Thanks so much for asking. You're absolutely right: biting is a completely normal stage for a baby who's just discovering his new teeth to go through. Still, biting hurts! So how do you make it stop? You’ve tried saying, “No!” You’ve tried distracting her. But nothing’s worked. What do you do now?
Let’s look at what we know and what we need to know:
To find out what we need to know, let’s imagine we’re listening to your baby’s thoughts and feelings. To do that, let’s put some of our own words out there to express Baby’s thoughts and feelings:
BABY: Hey, my tongue feels something inside my mouth. What is it? It’s new. Why’s it in there? It feels sharp. Try as I might, I can’t make it go away. I eat and suck, but my tongue still feels that sharpness in there. And you don’t seem upset about it! In fact, you and everyone seem happy, and all of you want to look in my mouth. Besides, I hear you say “tooth” and “teeth” all the time. You even try to put your finger in my mouth. Why? What are these things in here, anyhow?
We’ve listened to Baby. So how do we feel about that hurtful biting now? You say that listening is all well and good, but the biting still has to stop. So, what next?
What’s next is having some conversation with your baby. Yes, this conversation will likely be you doing all the talking. You’ll talk to Baby about all those thoughts we just imagined she was thinking and feeling:
YOU: Oh, you have a new tooth in there, don’t you! Your tongue can feel it. Yes, my tongue feels my teeth, too. Look! I make my tongue rub around my teeth. Just like you’re can do with your tongue. Where’s your tongue? Yes, you have a tongue in your mouth just like Daddy has.
Invite your baby to touch your teeth as you repeat sentences, such as: Your finger touches Mommy’s teeth; Look how Daddy has teeth and you can touch them with your fingers; My mouth has teeth, and your mouth is getting teeth, too; or Yes, our doggie has teeth, too.
You can expect your baby to reach out to touch your teeth often. And as teething progresses, Baby will continue to explore all your mouths. You’ll want to be ready to talk about how animals are protective of their mouths and teeth. Some babies are similarly protective. If that’s the case with your baby, you might say: Yes, I know you don’t want me to put my finger in your mouth. But you can touch my teeth. It’s okay with me.
So all this tooth talk is not only helping Baby learn about what’s happening inside her mouth; it’s also helping your baby learn where and when it’s okay to touch another’s teeth. You’re teaching your baby about respect for her own needs and for the needs of others.
With more conversation, you’ll want to talk about how you use your teeth to bite and chew food. You’ll want to dramatically demonstrate how you bite and chew the different foods each of you is eating. Repeat these teeth conversations as often as possible. And be sure to emphasize the purpose of teeth: That teeth are for biting and chewing food.
But what about that hurtful biting we have to stop, you ask? Okay, let’s talk about that, now that you’ve given your baby the opportunity to hear lots of vocabulary and knowledge about teeth. So you have conversation to call upon when any kind of hurtful biting happens. You’ll use a surprised and remindful tone of voice to say words like: Oh! Teeth are for biting and chewing food! It hurts when teeth bite people. We use our teeth to bite and chew food.
This is also a good time to use your distracting strategy, to say words like: Let’s see if we remember the food we were biting and chewing at breakfast today. Begin dramatizing how the two of you used your teeth to bite and chew that food. And each time any hurtful biting occurs, you’ll use that same surprised, remindful tone of voice to guide your child’s behavior toward respectful actions the two of you have talked about.
You’ll find my new board book Who Chews? very helpful as you develop all those conversations with your baby around teeth and biting! And all about how people and animals use them and care for their teeth.