Our 16-month-old daughter has become really bitey. She’s otherwise such a sweet girl but regularly bites my partner and I when we’re changing her nappy or playing. The other day I bit her back, just gently, on the shoulder (loads of mums claim this helped). She was really shocked and started crying, and I really regretted doing it – especially as it hasn’t made any difference. Do you think she’ll just grow out of this? I’m worried she’ll do it to other kids too.

I was worried that my daughter was never going to walk. She was around the age of your daughter, and rolled everywhere. My mum asked me how many adults I’d seen rolling to work. That helped (momentarily). When you’re going through a stage with a baby, it is really easy to forget that it’s a stage. It’s hard to hold on to this when you’re right in the middle of something that doesn’t seem to be going away. But just for starters, I can pretty much guarantee that when your daughter is five she won’t be biting everyone she sees (I can report mine only rolls in gymnastics now).

That’s the long view. For now, one way of making sure this is just a stage is, of course, helping your daughter grow out of it. As is so often the case, other people’s experiences won’t help yours – like you say, biting her back didn’t sit well with you. That kind of trial and error can be a bit confidence bashing too. On that note, reading your letter, it sounds as though you are approaching the whole thing very sensibly and it’s only the fear that you aren’t doing the right thing that’s causing you to panic. The truth is, everything is just a process of figuring out.

Your daughter’s age is a real transient time between babyhood and being a toddler, and emotions are a big jumble of feelings

Here’s something to try, if you haven’t: something she is allowed to bite, as a clear alternative. A stern “No biting people – it hurts”.  I think letting her know it hurts is important. This is something she will understand, from getting bumps herself. Followed by: “You can bite this, though.” One of those teething rings you put in the fridge, or something like the Sophie the Giraffe toy, designed for purpose. And put it to her mouth, or demonstrate. Even if her teeth aren’t the issue (which is a real possibility), it draws a very obvious line between what is allowed and what is not. She might just throw it on the floor. But if it happens every time, she’ll get the link. If her teeth are bothering her, she might enjoy the permitted gnawing.

Don’t worry. Think of it like this: the world for this little girl is a completely new and strangely brilliant place. Imagine not having teeth and then suddenly having them. And she’s very sweet, otherwise, you say. Imagine being so overwhelmed with love for people (her parents) that when you’re up close you just want to eat them. But you don’t know it hurts to bite. At your daughter’s age it’s a real transient time between babyhood and being a toddler, and emotions are a big jumble of feelings and the physical. Also – think of the self-control it takes as an adult at the dentist not to bite if there’s an actual finger in your mouth. There has to be something primal in there!

What if she’s doing it because it’s mischief? To get a funny reaction? The answer is the same – she’ll have to learn that there’s no traction, that every time she bites, the adult says no, it hurts, here’s something else. There are some things children just have to be told again and again. Suffice to say, Sisyphus should be patron saint of parenthood. And if the process is long, if she’s still doing it in a year, you’ll be able to find different ways of conveying the message as she grows in understanding. But for now, it’s just something you’re working on letting her know about.

Because she’s not at nursery yet, it means you can really work on this before she’s outside your supervision. Which you are already doing. Just on that note – if you can tackle your worry, if you can possibly allow yourself to think that you are doing a good job, doing the right thing in your own way, then you won’t be so panicked about the process that she’s going through.

Have a dilemma? Get in touch. hello@motherland.net

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