A saltwater crocodile's jaws bite down with a pressure of more than two tonnes, but you could keep its mouth closed with a shoelace. The muscles this beast uses to close its mouth are very powerful, while the muscles it uses to open its mouth are feeble. This fact comes to me along with a jolt of excruciating pain: Astrid's mouth is latched around my finger and her teeth are tearing the flesh. Don't pull away, I think. It will make it worse. Eventually the pressure eases and I am left with a finger mangled around the cuticle.
Astrid has started to bite a lot more over the past few weeks. Her mummy has borne the brunt of this intensified bout of gnashing. While I have a wound on my finger and one on my shoulder, Lucy is covered in purple bruises and jagged halos of teeth marks. It is as if she has been attacked by an undocumented creature, a strange hybrid whose bite has the profuseness of a mosquito and the power of a terrapin.
Don't react. That's the advice. But it is difficult not to emit a muffled yelp or to prevent a grimace forming across your face in the wake of such pain. Make no mistake, the bites are very painful, like trapping your finger between a pair of bread knives. But getting annoyed or reacting dramatically apparently encourages this behaviour and helps it to harden into habit. So we try to remain as stony faced as possible.
Astrid's mouth has long been a battle zone. Her teeth began to appear when she was about four months old. Since then, periodic spells of foul temper accompanied by litres of drool have signalled the arrival of another white fang. On these occasions, biting provided Astrid with a little relief. We bought teething rings, which can be frozen, for her to bite. Combined with doses of syrupy painkiller, chomping down on these icy doughnuts of coloured plastic seemed to help with the pain.
There is more to biting than teething, though. It has a tactile aspect as well. When Astrid was younger, around six months old, putting things in her mouth and biting them provided her with sensory information about the world. Her sense of taste was developing, and biting things was a way to explore and experience new and different objects. Adventures included eating handfuls of sand and chewing coloured chalks. Fortunately this behaviour subsided around her first birthday.
Why has Astrid started to bite again? It cannot be teething because she has pretty much all of her teeth. It does not seem to be for sensory stimulation or, if it does, that is not the main reason. Biting has become a way to vent frustration. Astrid tried to snip my finger tip like a Cuban cigar because I stopped her from touching the screen of my computer. I had just cleaned it and her hands were caked with jam.
Of course, I tried to explain why I didn't want her to paw at my computer screen, but she simply struggled towards it. When I pulled her away, her head and mouth started to follow my finger (which I tried to move out of the way) until her teeth locked on. Even if I had a shoelace handy, I doubt it would have been any good. Astrid would, I imagine, be immune to such tricks. For the moment, the biting continues whenever she is frustrated and we will have to fight to swallow our words when her jaws clamp down.
* Robert Carroll