How to Stop an Infant from Biting, Scratching, Hitting, Pulling Hair
I had a Mum call me last week to talk about her infant son who had recently started pinching. She thought it was likely that he was frustrated or grumpy, as he had been sick over the past few weeks.
She had sought out some advice, and was told that she should either pinch him back or tap him on the hand each time he pinched her, as a way to teach him not to do it. She really wanted to do something about the behaviour, but wasn’t keen on the thought of hurting her son in any way.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you will probably know that I’m not an advocate for physical reactions or punishments of any sort, particularly when used as a way to manage children’s behaviour.
In saying that, I can certainly understand how it would be a natural reflex, a “go to” move in a moment of frustration or used when it feels like there’s just no other option, and all you want is for the behaviour to just stop there and then (especially if they have hurt you!).
So, we had a bit of a chat, brainstormed together, and came up with an interim solution to try:
Each time he pinched, she would hold his hands firmly and say
Stop. Pinching hurts.
She thought it would be worth giving that a go for a week to see if it worked, while I promised to do a bit more research during that time, to see what else I could dig up, find out if this is a common behaviour, and what other strategies are out there.
During the week, I found that most mother’s report that their children start using some form of physical force (such as biting, pinching, scratching or hitting) from around 6 months of age. It is thought that these actions are used as a form of communication, as an interim solution until they have developed the verbal skills to tell their parent/s what is they are after, or frustrated about.
So, it’s good news that most children will stop these behaviours when they are around 3-4 years of age… but what do you do about it between then and the 17520 hours or so until they “grow out of it”?
I put the word out to our parenting community, and it seemed as though this was a pretty common thing people had experienced, but unfortunately, many people just weren’t sure how to make it stop!
In saying that though, a couple of pretty handy tips came through, including:
Melissa from Educational Strategies
A former teacher, parent to three children, PHD candidate, and provider of educational services throughout the world via in-person and Skype sessions. Her specialties include reading and literacy trainings, helping those living with special needs, early childhood education, attachment parenting and more….
Shared her experience of her little one who used to bite and pinch:
One of my children used to bite and pinch because he had difficulty communicating in other ways.
Baby sign language helped as did setting him down away from the injured party and saying “No” in a firm voice.
In addition, placing another object in his hand helped him to stay busy. We often played together with toys, if rated safe for his age and stage, to practice pinching or biting a safe item rather than a person or pet.
Victoria from Lylia Rose
Shared how she dealt with the behaviour when it cropped up a couple of times:
I’ve been lucky that my children have only ever bitten me, pulled hair or pinched a few times. It has never (or not yet) been a drawn out stage.
When it happened I’d say something along the lines of ‘we don’t bite people because it’s not kind and it hurts them’. I’d always ask how they would feel if someone did it to them.
I’d not make a big fuss about it if it only happened once or twice as this is perfectly normal. I would redirect their attention to play. If it did happen more often I’d remove them from the situation and give them a time out to reinstate it’s unwanted behaviour.
Lastly, I did a bit of research, and added a couple of strategies to the Oh Beehave! library too:
Empathising with a child (e.g. showing them you understand they are mad, sad, angry, upset or frustrated) can help them understand, manage and develop the capacity to self-regulate their emotions.
Using the pinching example, empathising with the infant might sound something like:
“I know you’re frustrated, but pinching is not the way to tell me that”
“Show me what you want instead”
Most children can understand more language than they can speak (imagine it’s a bit like when you learn a new language… often you can understand what is being said before you start developing the skills to respond in the same language).
Research has found that the more a parent or caregiver empathises with an infant, the less likely the infant is to demonstrate behaviours such as pinching, hitting, biting etc.
Provide positive feedback
When you see your child communicate with you without pinching, make sure you acknowledge it.
“You want me to pick you up? I’m so proud of you for showing me you want up by putting your hands up and not pinching.”
Often parents (and teachers, and caregivers – I’m guilty of this myself!) will focus so much on correcting the behaviours they don’t want to see, that they will forget to praise the behaviours they do want to see (it’s a bit scary – I can’t remember the exact stat on this, but one study found that parents ignore about 80% of the positive behaviours they see!).
For positive feedback to be most effective, it is good to aim to praise the behaviour you are looking for about 6 times for every mis-behaviour you correct.
How do you get your little one to stop pinching, biting, scratching, pulling hair (or similar)? Let us know in the comments below (if you have a website, feel free to include the link).
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Dominique has a background in psychology and education and uses her knowledge to share simple and effective behaviour strategies with parents on her website Oh Beehave! created by her and her husband Sam. Dominique and Sam are recently married, so while they were working together to build their website, they decided it would be a fun side project to blog about their experience towards parenthood. Unfortunately, their journey has been more challenging than they (or anyone else) could have anticipated. Follow along to see how their journey pans out on the blog at Oh Beehave!
- Smaling, H.J.A., Huijbregts, S. C. J., van der Heijden K. B., Hay, D. F., van Goozen, S. H. M., & Swaab, H. (2017). Prenatal Reflective Functioning and Development of Aggression in Infancy: The Roles of Maternal Intrusiveness and Sensitivity. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 45. pp. 237–248