Why Does my Older Child Chew on Things?
How to help older children overcome putting things in their mouths.
When babies and toddlers mouth non-food items, it is typically because the child is teething or simply exploring the taste and texture of different objects. Although mouthing objects is a necessary part of development for small children, it can sometimes extend beyond the 24-month mark.
As a parent, you may have seen your child eat dirt from the playground, or chew his or her shirt collar. What does it mean and is it a problem?
Occasionally, mouthing in older children can be behavioral or simply due to boredom. It can become negative attention-seeking if Mom or Dad continues to say “stop it” or “get your hands out of your mouth.” Other times it can be a sign of stress or an unmet sensory need. The important thing to understand is the purpose that mouthing serves for the child and address the underlying causes, ensuring healthy development.
Children who eat dirt, clay, chalk or other such items might suffer from a condition known as pica (pronounced PIE-ka), which is typically due to a nutritional or vitamin deficiency. Pica can be a sign of developmental delay or nutrition/digestion problems. If a child shows these signs it is important to see a pediatrician who can help diagnose pica and suggest supplements or medication.
Stress or Anxiety
Just as babies self-sooth by sucking or adults engage in nail biting as a way of calming, mouthing can be an easily discovered behavior by children looking to calm themselves.
If a child is experiencing stress or anxiety about something, it is important to investigate that issue with the child and provide a safe space to talk about it. Suggesting replacement behaviors or a physical activity like running, playing basketball, riding a bicycle or drumming might help. A team approach consisting of a counselor and occupational therapist can help identify the underlying issues and create the best therapeutic approach.
Children with sensory processing issues, especially children with autism, tend to mouth and chew objects more frequently while looking to self-regulate. Chewing provides proprioceptive input, deep pressure and direct feedback to our neurological system, which is very calming.
Mouthing as a sign of sensory processing difficulty does not necessarily mean that the child is lacking oral input, it can simply be a way for the child to self-regulate in attempts to engage a different unmet sense. An occupational therapist can help identify the systems that are out of balance and create activities to provide sensory input, promoting overall regulation.
How to Help Your Child
Mouthing should not be discouraged without a replacement coping mechanism. Some chewing devices (chew stick, gum, ice) come with a cost of future dental damage, hygiene issues and cleanliness. Chew tubes and oral devices can be helpful once the reason for the mouthing has been defined and the overall sensory regulation has been addressed.
Working with a pediatric occupational therapist trained in sensory processing and anxiety can help to identify the underlying causes of mouthing. Occupational therapists can help you develop techniques that include substitutions or strategies to compensate. This can be achieved in as little as a few sessions by creating a plan to help the child cope with stress or unmet sensory needs, avoiding future harm to your child’s mouth, health and overall wellness.
Bri VonLehmden-Kurcsak is a pediatric occupational therapist at Novant Health Rehabilitation Center specializing in sensory processing disorders, picky eaters and problem feeders, and the behavioral challenges that arise with developmental delays and autism spectrum disorders. She has extensive training, and also serves as adjunct faculty at CPCC OTA program, teaching pediatric courses.