My son the biter

Why does he always chew the one he loves?


Lisa Moricoli Latham
March 28, 2001 1:49AM (UTC)

You'd think any mother would be delighted when her son toddles toward her, arms and grin open wide. Not me: I cringe.

My baby bites. My muffin munches. My son bites me when he's angry, he nips me when I wake up too slowly -- at this point there aren't many times he won't bite me.

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It goes against common sense and survival tactics, but my baby hardly bites anyone but me, his mother, the one person upon whom he depends for not only love and attention but a fair percentage of his nutrition. He literally bites the hand that feeds him.

Luckily, he doesn't bite the nipple that feeds him. While I had problems with my son's oral tenacity early on, compared with his habit of biting the rest of me, extinguishing his efforts to bite my breast were a cinch -- a few loud yelps and a good smoosh into the breast, and he never bit the booby again.

Unfortunately, that's about the only part of my anatomy my son avoids. He bites my clavicle, my neck, my arms, my fingers, my toes and my ankles. Once, as I knelt to retrieve a toy from beneath the sofa, he bit me on the ass.

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These aren't wee love smacks, either. No, no, my boy leaves marks. For a few weeks there, I had perfectly matching bruises in exactly the same spot on each arm. Other badges of motherhood have included semicircular marks on my legs and indentations on my brow bone, and once, my little vampire broke the skin on my hand.

Judging from facial expression and context, I'd say that, at first, my son bit to see what it felt like. Then he bit when he got overexcited as we roughhoused, or when we snuggled really close. Soon, he was biting whenever he objected to being picked up, dressed or diapered -- which, as any parent of a 14-month-old knows, was every time he was picked up, dressed or diapered. Now, sometimes, I swear, he bites me just for the heck of it.

When Ian first started biting, at around 9 months, we could assume that he didn't know that biting hurts. But after seven months of chomps that have ranged from barely perceptible -- can I get away with this much? How about this much? -- to bare-teethed and patently malevolent, our wee scientist's experiments are long over. He knows we don't like it.

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At 16 months, our baby knows the difference between bone and flesh, flesh and skin, skin and clothing. Sometimes I can feel him adjust his jaw to allow my finger to stay attached to my hand, or my thigh to avoid being bruised, but I never escape completely. At the last possible nanosecond, he'll snap his jaw shut to catch a few threads of, say, my last good cashmere sweater and riiiiip it as he turns away, just a little, just enough so that an onlooker would rationalize it as a mistake. I know better. He's telling me that it's by his grace I remain intact -- this time.

That's why I cringe when the baby runs to greet me. I have no idea if his open-mouthed grin means he's happy to see me or he's salivating over the return of his favorite victim. I don't mind the biting for my own sake (well, sometimes I do), but I've been worried about what unchecked biting might do to his social life.

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No one wants to share a sandbox with a biter, so I hit the parenting books to see what could be done to my diminutive dentalist before his reputation is sealed on the playground. As usual, the pediatric experts offer virtually no consensus. The only item the parenting pundits agree on is that I shouldn't bite the baby back.

One book instructs parents to overreact whenever a child bites. But I think my pantomimes of pain and suffering did nothing but encourage him to bite me whenever he wanted a show. Another book instructed bitten parents not to react at all. But my son took silence for consent; if I gave him the cold shoulder, he bit it.

I've tried baby timeouts (one minute per year of age) and scolding, and have reminded him, "Don't bite me!" every time he comes near. I've given him pacifiers and substitute victims ("Bite the blankie! Bite the froggie!"), and on the guidance of pediatricians who must've doubled as dog trainers, I even tried bitter moisturizers. (After all, I am the same woman who tried 19 different nipple creams.)

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The dumbest parenting advice I've tried to follow so far came from the currently (and, to my mind, unaccountably) bestselling baby bible. It advises that the family as a whole avoid not only nasty bites but "love bites" as well. My husband and I tried -- we lasted about a day before our son's silk-skinned siren song seduced us into slurping him once again.

I've had to grin and bear it as my son dangled off my skin by his teeth, feet flapping in the breeze like a wee moray eel -- that is, until recently, when my son became a talking toddler. Once "No!" became his favorite word, I taught him to touch his nose to say "Yes," as in, "right on the nose." Then, on the advice of a lone grocery store mommy who'd overheard me pleading for mercy in the produce section, my son and I sat down to discuss the problem as if we were both as clever as he is. As we nursed one evening I asked yes-or-no questions, then listened.

To my astonishment -- and shame -- my baby answered. Stunned, I responded with the police interrogator's ruse of asking a few questions I knew the answers to -- and damned if he didn't catch my trick. Yes, he likes peas; no, his pajamas aren't blue. He even sighed as if to say, "Duh, Mommy."

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Shocked that he could understand so much that I'd assumed was over his head, the floodgates opened and I asked my baby everything from "Were you mad at Mommy when you bit me while we were snuggling after breakfast?" and "When you bit my jaw and left a mark tonight, did you want to hurt me?" to "What's the winning lottery number?" and "How far will Intel slide?"

No, he wasn't mad when we were snuggling; no, he didn't mean to hurt me; but he was frustrated enough to use violence to get my attention. Whoops.

As for the bites he administered while snuggling, when I offered that "I love you so much I could eat you up," he stopped nursing to sit up and put his hand on my nose: Yes, "exactly."

In short, what I discovered over the course of our first conversation was that trapped inside my little guy is an individual, not just a cluster of needs to be met or desires to be gratified while we're waiting for his persona to develop. He may not be able to predict the next big stock correction, but he needs to be taken into account, not just taken along.

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After our round of Twenty Questions, I felt elated -- and terrible. Thrilled that my baby could understand so much English, I was deeply, achingly regretful that up until then, I'd done my best to anticipate his needs, but I hadn't explained my thinking or given him any choice in the matter.

All I could do was say I was sorry, which I did; and in response, he sat up to kiss me on the spot where my jaw still stung from that evening's bite, the worst, and now the best, so far.


Lisa Moricoli Latham

Lisa Moricoli Latham is a freelance writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in various publications, from DUCKMAN to the New York Times.

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