Babies love to munch on their toys. They nibble at book bindings, chew the heck out of their loveys, and some little ones really love to chew their pacifiers. As they grow, most children let go of this behavior. Chewing and biting for sensory exploration and state modulation diminishes and a child’s behavior evolves into thinking, communicating, and smooth internal state regulation.
But some older kids slip their sleeve or shirt collar into their mouth whenever they can, and are left with a soggy mess by the end of the day. They suck on their markers or the grocery store cart. Their toys and pencils are ragged witnesses to the continuing use of oral stimulation, long past the first year or two of life.
Why do they do this?
Some kids are seeking to fill an oral cavity that is less stimulated due to low muscle tone, hypermobility and/or limited sensory discrimination. Shoving a sleeve in there provides that sensory boost as muscles, skin and ligaments stretch. Children that need more sensory input due to inactivity, boredom, physical limitations and illness use oral input as an always-available and independent option. Other kids use biting and chewing to modulate their level of arousal (and open their eustachian tubes, BTW!). While most OTs know about the modulation piece, the way biting and chewing impact hearing and even vestibular health isn’t so commonly considered. Biting can stem nystagmus for some kids, and it can lessen dizziness or help a child move their eyes apart as they watch objects in the distance (divergence) for reading the board and for sports. For kids that use biting well after the toddler biting phase should be over, evaluating any ocular (eye) or ENT issues can be helpful.
Exploring the level of stress in a child’s life outside the classroom or therapy clinic is another consideration. Biting and chewing are calming proprioceptive inputs that a child can use when they are anxious or fearful, or just uncertain. The jaw muscles have innervations to the autonomic nervous system and the auditory system. Kids who struggle with language processing can use biting and chewing to assist them in listening to you or in tolerating sound. It may not be possible to impact the stress of divorce, moving to a new home, or adding a newborn to the family, but appreciating these situations as factors in behavior can improve how families, teachers and therapists respond. Older children could be trying to modulate their level of arousal without causing trouble by running, jumping or yelling. Chewing is less likely to be disruptive in a classroom setting.
What Can You Do Once a Chewing Habit is Established?
Once oral sensory seeking behavior takes hold, it isn’t easy to stop. It can be very satisfying and accessible, particularly for young children. Addressing the core cause or causes means taking things one step at a time. Many children do well with a multi-sensory diet added to their daily activities. More physical activity or more frequent activity breaks can help. I find that more vestibular input in particular can be powerful. Using whistles can be helpful when chosen well and supervised for safety and overall modulation. Some children need to become more aware of their behaviors; older kids can use some of the “How Does Your Engine Run?” concepts to take responsibility for their behaviors and independently seek alternative sensory input. Kids that learn mindfulness techniques can incorporate those into their program as well.
The use of chewing objects can help, but there are three concerns that have to be addressed: hygiene, safety, and speech. A child that sucks or chews on any object isn’t going to monitor its cleanliness, so make sure you use non-toxic soap that is carefully rinsed off. A chewing necklace should never be worn while sleeping due to safety issues, nor can it be used when it could become snagged on branches or sports equipment. And finally, having something in the mouth, whether it is a pacifier or a chewing toy, will minimize and alter speech if it isn’t removed for communication. Never allow a child who is talking or learning to talk to devolve into head nods so they can keep chewing.
Looking for more information on sensory issues? Read Sensory Sensitivity In Toddlers: Why Responding Differently to “Yucky!” Will Help Your Child and Weaning the Pacifier From An Older Child.