Biting, pinching and 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. It’s a way of exploring and getting to know their world.

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 reaction – which might also make her want to try it again!

Babies also bite when they’re teething because their gums feel sore.

Toddlers might bite, pinch or pull hair because they’re excited, angry, upset or hurt. Sometimes they behave this way because they don’t have words to express these feelings.

Some toddlers might bite, pinch or pull hair because they’ve seen other children do it, or other children have done it to them. They might also do it when they’re fighting with another child.

Babies and toddlers might also pinch, bite or pull hair if they:

  • feel overwhelmed by too much noise, light or activity
  • need opportunities for more active play
  • feel overtired or hungry.

It’s normal to feel upset if your child hurts you or someone else by biting, pinching or hair-pulling. But if you react calmly and constructively now, it’s the first step towards promoting positive behaviour in the future.

Babies: managing biting, pinching and hair-pulling

It’s best to give your baby a clear verbal response when he bites, pinches or pulls hair. 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.

If your baby is teething, give him something else to bite, like a teether, a cold washer or a safe toy. If he’s hungry, offer him a feed. This might make a difference to the behaviour.

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 her with lots of attention and praise.

Toddlers: managing biting, pinching and hair-pulling

A clear, verbal response to biting, pinching and hair-pulling is important. It’s also good to let toddlers know how you feel. For example, you can say, ‘No. No biting. Biting hurts Mummy’.

Your next steps depend on the reasons for your child’s behaviour. When you understand the reasons, you can respond in a way that helps your child learn more appropriate ways to behave.

No words for ‘big feelings’
If you think your child is biting, pinching and hair-pulling because he can’t find words for feelings like frustration or anger, it won’t help if you get angry too.

Instead, it’s really important to stay calm. This will teach your child about how to deal positively with strong emotions. You can also help your child learn words for feelings. For example, you could say something like, ‘You look like you’re feeling angry’.

Attention
If the behaviour is about getting your attention, taking your attention away from your child sends her a very powerful message about how you’re feeling. For example, you can turn away or move away from her.

Stimulation or hunger
If your toddler is biting for stimulation or because he’s hungry, you could offer crunchy food like crackers or vegetable sticks, a drink bottle with a straw, or a teether.

If your child keeps biting, pinching or hair-pulling, try to be consistent in the way you respond. This will help your child learn about appropriate behaviour. If your child is three or older, you could think about giving her a consequence like a short time-out.

If your toddler bites, pinches or pulls the hair of another child

If your child bites or hurts another child, stay calm and get in quickly with an apology to the child and the other parent. You can also comment on how the other child feels – for example, ‘Sam is crying because pinching hurts’. If you show care and concern for the other child, it can help your child learn about empathy.

Next, remove your child from the situation.

Depending on how upset the other child is, a short note or text to the parent to say sorry might also help.

Older toddlers: talking about biting, pinching or hair-pulling afterwards

It can help to talk about biting, pinching and hair-pulling with older toddlers when you’re both calm. The key is to use language your child can understand.

This can help your child learn about better ways to behave. Also, children can feel upset or frightened if they’ve hurt someone, so talking can help them handle these feelings. You could talk to your child about asking for help or using words to express feelings.

After biting, pinching or hair-pulling, help your child move on. Playing with sand or water, blowing bubbles, squishing playdough, or drawing quietly can help your child relax and feel calm again.

Getting 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.

It’s a good idea to get some help if:

  • you’re feeling frustrated or exhausted or getting angry
  • the behaviour worries you so much that you stop doing things like seeing friends or going to the shops.

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, occupational therapist 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.

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