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How to Stop an Infant from Biting, Scratching, Hitting, PullingHair

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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:
 
Empathise
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.

For example:
“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).


To check out more Oh Beehave! strategies click here (non-members will need to register to view – it’s easy with just 1 click!)


If you have a topic you would like us to include, a tip you want to share, or you would like to feature as a contributor on “Who’s The Expert” get in touch (let us know if you would like to receive email alerts!) or join our facebook group!

References

  • 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

Looking for more strategies?

 

Download our App Parenting Therapy in the iTunes App Store to access the 30 best parenting strategies

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Victoria-Lylia Rose

Thank you very much for featuring me. It’s so helpful to read the other suggestions too. I’m getting some great tips 🙂

Divya

You are truly wonderful. I wish we lived closer so I could thought partner with you when we do eventually have kids of our own! These strategies remind me a lot of the Applied Behavior Analysis techniques we used for our kids with autism. They worked. Effectively. Without causing emotional or physical harm to the child.

Beth

My son was a hitter and a pincher for awhile too, we used timeouts and explained that those things give people owies and eventually he stopped doing them. It’s hard, but we kept at it and it seemed to work!

Charlotte

I imagine that in the heat of the moment (and let’s face it, in the face of sheer pain!) it would be hard NOT to have a knee-jerk reaction, but I love your alternatives always. And I think holding a child’s hands and asking sternly to stop is wonderful and love that it doesn’t involve “fighting back” but reasoning instead. <3 You always have wonderful advice here! Thank you for sharing, my sweet and hope you have a great week!!

Jamie

This was very informative. My youngest child is now 13, so it has been a while since I’ve dealt with these patterns of behavior in infants. I am brushing up, because my (very unexpected) niece should be born in about 2 weeks! I remember that breastfeeding was a struggle when infants bite during feeding. Did you receive any feedback on positive results for stopping that behavior? My sister plans to breastfeed, and I don’t really remember what I did–I just remember the pain…

Everyday Joey

My little one is getting around that stage, and it is frustrating. I’m a single mom at the moment as husband is living away while finishing up school. With lack of sleep and being a single mom, it is hard to think deeper than those instinct reactions. Glad you gave me other options and approaches to think about. I will try all of them!

Jessica Bradshaw

These are all great ideas! The right language is so important. Teaching kids to use their words is key.

Kimberly

These are such wonderful tips for any parent who is struggling with these issues right now. My son is eight now and I can honestly say that I do not miss the temper tantrum days!

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