If as parents you find yourself saying phrases like, “Do not put that thing in your mouth”, or “stop biting the fingernails”, quite a lot, then probably your child has a habit of chewing on everything. Keeping aside everything else, this could be a very concerning situation for parents, especially from the perspective of safety and hygiene for their children.
Although mouthing is a common behavior for toddlers, after they reach 2 years old, constantly mouthing objects can start to become a bit concerning. In these cases, when a child exhibits these kinds of chewing behaviors, there has to be some scientific reason which is getting overlooked. It could very well stem from the cause that your child’s oral sensory input is not fulfilling its need or exact requirement.
In this comprehensive guide, we will discuss in detail what is oral sensory seeking, why your child is seeking the oral sensory inputs more than other children, and what strategies you could adopt so that the sensory needs of your child are met in an appropriate, safe, and hygienic way.
What is Oral Sensory Seeking?
The oral sensory system is one of the crucial systems of our physiology. This system does not just help us with the sensation of taste but also, acts as an important feedback mechanism for our oral motor input.
When this system works efficiently, children can eat a variety of foods with different flavors and textures. They can also participate in oral hygiene routines without any difficulties and are able to self-regulate and concentrate, without seeking the help of additional oral motor input or chewing.
However, this is not the case for every child because they cannot process all the oral information efficiently and as a result, they need some help in this department. Oral sensory seeking is the function that these children resort to when they continue chewing on things or putting things in their mouth when they are well past the age of 2 years.
It has to be remembered that the problem of oral sensory seeking is sometimes diagnosed alongside other health conditions that could be associated with autism, learning disabilities, developmental delays, or other sensory issues and disorders. This is why the children continue to chew or suck constantly on non-food items and objects, even past their toddler years.
They sometimes put clothing items in their mouths including their t-shirt neckline, shirt collar, sleeves, or cuffs, including other items like toys and pencils.
When is Oral Seeking Behavior Normal?
Now, when it comes to babies and infants, oral sensory seeking becomes part of their normal behaviors as they use sucking or chewing for the purpose of self-soothing or calming themselves down. Therefore, these activities help them a lot in self-regulation.
Between the ages of 18 and 24 months, most babies try to explore their surroundings or the world around them using their mouths, and thus they have a constant tendency to put things in their mouths. It not just helps them in the development of sensory-motor skills but also, allows their brain to process the extra information about various objects including their size, texture, and shape. Usually, these tendencies start decreasing when the kid approaches 18 months or so but in some cases, it could extend even after two years.
Outlook of a Child’s Oral Sensory Seeking
If your children have already crossed the threshold of two years but have not been able to leave the habit of chewing or sucking on non-food items and objects, you could see the following behavioral patterns in them:
- Constant sucking of their thumb or specific fingers
- Constantly biting their nails
- Chewing on pieces of paper
- Putting pencils in their mouths
- Chewing on clothing neckline or collar
- Sucking the sleeves of their shirts or hat strings
- Putting the toys they play with, in their mouth
- Sucking or chewing on the soft parts of specific toys
Now, all these behaviors are extremely normal in the case of babies and infants who are on their developmental curve and under the age of two.
When they are past the age of two then these habits should be less common or highly reduced.
However, if your child is older than two and is still exhibiting these sucking and chewing behaviors, they might have some oral sensory seeking concerns.
Why Some Children Still Require Oral Sensory Input After the Age of Two?
As we have already established that the habit of chewing on things is normal before your child reaches the age limit of two years, let us look at the reasons why some children still exhibit those behaviors after they are past the threshold age limit.
Here are some of the possible reasons:
The Problem of Developmental Delays
When babies are trying to explore the world around them, it is natural for them to put things in their mouths and make sense of the object or a specific item. But when children who are approaching or are past the age of 2 years are still using their mouth to process necessary information about the world around them, then the reason could lie in their developmental delays.
No matter their age, their brain is still trying to process and perceive information at a much younger level than a 2-year-old. They could very well be faced with the challenges of sensorimotor stage development.
These children may still be exploring objects around them with their mouths, rather than with their hands.
If you think this is the case, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor or a licensed occupational therapist.
The Problem in Self-soothing or Self-regulation
When babies are on their developmental curves, they are unable to typically express their stress and anxieties about the newly discovered world around them. As a result, they resort to their own mechanism of self-soothing or self-regulation. This is quite important as just like full-grown adults, they need to calm themselves up when they feel any sense of stress.
In the case of babies, this calming sensation comes from chewing or sucking on things. If a baby finds particular comfort in carrying out the activity of chewing to stay calm, then they could also use this strategy when they grow older.
In fact, if you notice this specific pattern in your child that they start chewing or sucking on objects after long and tiresome activity, it could be a sign that your child is either exhausted, overwhelmed, or simply tired. They resort to chewing behaviors because they do not know any better ways to cope with their feelings and emotions.
Take note of when your child is engaging in chewing behaviors. If you are noticing that it happens after school, towards the end of the day, or when your child becomes very overwhelmed, then maybe they are doing it as part of their self-soothing behavior.
Sensory Processing Differences
Sensory processing difficulties could also make a child put things, objects, or clothing items in their mouths. Some children have a higher need for oral movement, and therefore their sensory systems encourage behaviors that meet this need.
In fact, in children who are diagnosed with sensory processing disorders or autism, the habit of chewing and sucking is highly prevalent.
Experiencing Sensory Overload
In addition to sensory integration difficulties, for some children who are experiencing sensory overload, these behaviors may be more prevalent.
A sensory overload takes place in the system of a child, or an adult if too much sensory input or information from their surroundings is given to them, which becomes difficult to process efficiently. Their brains cannot sort out all the information and as a result, it gets overwhelmed and chaotic.
Therefore, many children take the help of oral sensory seeking to process all the information or use chewing in order to self-soothe and self-regulate. Whenever they experience any sensory overload, the children use this method to calm their nerves down.
Since the jaw muscles of human beings are one of the strongest sets of muscles in the entire body, chewing on things gives our brains a huge volume of proprioceptive sensory input. So, this also contributes to the idea of constant chewing as it gives the brain the necessary reward outlet.
Problem with their Teeth
If your child is constantly chewing or sucking on things, it could also be a case that they are experiencing problems with their teeth.
The first and foremost problem that their teeth could give them for these older children is the coming out of their adult teeth. Since teeth are cutting through their soft gum, sometimes they put things in their mouth to counter the feeling of sensitivity.
In some cases specifically, the problem could also lie with other dental issues like decay, cavity, or gum infection. In order to discard the situation, you need to take your child to a dentist first who will assess the dental and oral problem, if there is any in case of your child.
A Medical Condition known as Pica
The medical condition of pica makes children put anything and everything in their mouths and the list does not restrict itself to just non-food items or clothing items.
If your child is diagnosed with this condition, they can put all kinds of things in their mouth including Lego parts, dirt, mud, coins, or even cigarette butts. The problem that this serious condition poses is that the children who have pica cannot distinguish between items that are edible from the ones that are non-edible.
More research is still needed to understand and explore pica. However, there are certain types of population that are more likely to have pica.
- Pregnant women
- Individuals in developing countries
- Individuals who are institutionalised, in particular those who have an intellectual disability.
- Individuals suffering from malnutrition, especially if they have iron and or zinc deficiency (Inside Out, n.d.).
There is still limited research as to what causes pica. According to the National Autism Society, some of the reasons behind pica could lie in the domain of sensory development, behavioral inconsistency, dietary factors, or other medical conditions (Griffin OT, 2021).
If you think your child might have pica, it is important to talk to your local doctor and or child’s pediatrician for them to do further medical investigations.
When does Oral Sensory Seeking Become a Problem for Your Children?
As we have discussed earlier, for many children the activity of chewing on things or sucking their thumb helps them to calm themselves down and self soothe their urges and feelings, in the face of any situation or unknown circumstances.
This method of self-regulation sometimes goes well beyond the suggested age limit of 2 years and then it is believed by medical professionals that what was once a helpful strategy at a young age to stay functional is now turning into a bad habit.
If proper care is not taken and early intervention is not done at the right time, the bad habit of chewing or sucking could very well develop into a full-grown dependency.
Limit Fine Motor Development
For younger children, constantly mouthing objects to explore can limit their abilities to explore using their hands and therefore limit their fine motor skills.
The early signs of problems that are associated with oral sensory seeking could be noticed in the child at the time of their chewing or sucking activity if the child starts zoning out completely. For example, during an important lesson in the classroom or when the parents are trying to teach their children an important skill, the child puts their clothing neckline or a pencil butt in their mouth and starts daydreaming from that point onwards.
If the problem is not noticed and the child continues to do this, sooner than later the parents will find that many objects, pencils, or toys have been destroyed completely only through excessive chewing. Some children chew on their clothes so enthusiastically that all their clothes could get worn and torn in the oddest places imaginable.
Ineffective Calming Strategy
For some children, mouthing and chewing can be very self-soothing and be used as a calming strategy.
When the child grows up with this bad habit ingrained in their mindsets, it could give rise to inappropriate situations for the child as they cannot get rid of this childhood habit, which in turn, makes them vulnerable to bullying from their peers, especially for older children whether chewing may not be seen as an age-appropriate calming strategy.
Therefore, it is important for these children to develop some age-appropriate calming strategies, whether it is chewing gum, working on deep breathing strategies, or mindfulness techniques.
If the situation is severe, this could strongly affect their self-esteem and at a later stage may result in other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Types of Oral Sensory Behaviors
When it comes to our mouths or the physiology of our oral cavities, broadly there are three sensory inputs that all of us receive. These are as follows:
Sense of Touch (Tactile)
The tactile sense points that are present in our oral cavity receive input from anything and everything that touches our tongue, lips, cheeks, and gums. Our tongue especially has a lot of tactile sensory receptors that give feedback to our brains all the time as in how a specific thing feels or even about the temperature of different things.
Sense of Deep Pressure (Proprioception)
The jaw muscles of human beings are one of the strongest sets of muscles and therefore, any activity of them can provide big hits of proprioceptive feedback to our brains. Our jaws are highly capable of providing high volumes of deep pressure input.
This contributes directly to the activity of chewing and sucking which again sends a lot of sensory information to the brain for it to process. As children, all of us want to process our surrounding world using this method of the sensory system and in doing so, we end up putting a lot of objects or items in our mouths.
Sense of Taste
Just like tactile receptors, our tongue is full of sensory receptors of taste which gives them the ability to taste a wide variety of flavors including salty, sweet, spicy, and sour.
Now, since the entire system of oral sensory processing is affected by these three factors, your child who is exhibiting the signs of constant chewing could very well have a high or low threshold for these three sensory inputs.
Depending on whether your child has a high or low sensory threshold for these sensory inputs, they might exhibit certain behaviors.
High Threshold of Oral Sensory Input
Some individuals with high sensory input want to seek additional input.
Let us look at some of the symptoms of high threshold oral seeking sensory input:
- More than frequent or excessive licking of various objects or items
- Frequent or excessive chewing of non-food items like paper, pencils, crayons, shirt collar, sleeves, bed sheets, toys
- Frequent biting on toys or people when completely unprovoked or overly excited
- Frequent chewing on the inside of the cheeks or teeth grinding
- Frequent biting or sucking on lips
- Excessive biting of nails
- Prefers strong flavors e.g. salty, spicy, sweet, and crunchy foods
In other cases, there are some people who have a high threshold but they seem to miss a lot of sensory input. We call this low-registration.
Let’s have a look at the symptoms of low-registration oral sensory input:
- High level of difficulty in chewing various food items
- Excessive difficulty in using a straw
- Frequent spitting and drooling
- Frequent spitting of food while eating
- High chance of losing track of food in the mouth and as a result chances of choking or gagging increases
- High probability of food falling out of the mouth accidentally
Low Threshold of Oral Sensory Input
Let’s have a look at the general symptoms of low threshold oral sensory inputs:
- Frequent gagging at the sight or taste of specific textures
- High aversion to brushing teeth
- Strong dislike for the mixed texture of food items
- Preference for bland foods with very little or no flavor at all
- Likes crunchy or soft texture foods with a strong preference for small portion size
If your child has sensory processing difficulties or you have seen some of the above symptoms in your child, then it is a good idea to talk to your child’s doctor or seek occupational therapy help.
Strategies to Support Your Children’s Oral Sensory Needs
When it comes to strategies to help your child from putting things or non-food items in their mouth, you do not need to disrupt the daily routine of your child to get them out of their chewing behavior. In fact, you do not need to buy a whole lot of stuff or expensive equipment to get rid of this problem.
With a little creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, you can definitely change your child’s habits.
In saying this, it is important to find out the underlying reason that your child is experiencing these chewing behaviors – whether it is medical, sensory, self-soothing, or other reasons. Understanding the underlying reasons makes addressing the issue and using certain strategies more effective.
Here are some of the ways by which you can help your children from chewing and sucking on every object or item:
As we have discussed earlier, a child gets heavy pressure input from chewing because our jaw muscles are one of the strongest sets of muscles in our human body. So, if your child is seeking deep pressure oral sensory input through the only activity of chewing, you can incorporate some heavy work activities in the daily routine of your child.
These heavy work activities may include:
- Animal walks
- Pushing against a wall
- Carrying groceries from the car into the house
- Pushing laundry baskets filled with toys
This will help them replace their constant chewing behavior as they will get the necessary deep pressure input from that particular activity.
Give Your Children Chewy/Crunchy Foods
When food is harder to chew, it can give your child the same deep-pressure sensory input that they might be looking for. Crunchy or chewy foods like apples, pretzels, and raw carrot sticks could be some of the great options when it comes to chewy and crunchy foods.
Intense flavors like spicy, sour, and minty including some chewy candies and chewing gum are also great alternatives but you need to be also careful about how much your child consumes.
Use Selected Straws
Some water bottles that have straws are great for children who need additional oral sensory input.
Also, you can give your children straws when they need to have any liquid or yogurt. When they suck through a straw, especially thick liquids, it will give them a real opportunity to work their jaw muscles.
Use Vibration Toys or Toothbrushes
An electric toothbrush is great for giving intense oral sensory input. However, it has to be said that some children do not like these types of toothbrushes at all but for some, they are great alternatives to other non-food items.
Vibrating toothbrushes or toys are capable of giving the deep pressure oral sensory motivation that your child is after. Also, electronic toothbrushes are also a great hygienic option.
Take the Help of a Sensory Diet
Since the problem of chewing is sensory, an Occupational Therapist can help your child immensely by giving them a sensory diet that helps them self-regulate their sensory system.
An Occupational Therapist will examine your child and suggest a diet that will give them the accurate amount of proprioceptive input that is required by your child throughout the day. This will not just decrease their need to chew but also, will give many other health benefits to your child.
Give Your Child Some Chewing Alternatives
There are many things in the market today that are called ‘chewies’. These are items that can be classified into heavy or lighter according to the level of toughness. Here are some of the items that you could give to your child:
- Items like bracelets or necklaces that can be worn but are made of chewable materials
- Letters that are made of chewable materials which can be held
- Pencil toppers which are also chewable materials put on the top of the pencils for individuals who constantly chew on their pencils
- Healthy chewing gums which many parents use for their children
However, please keep in mind the health and safety of your children before you buy them any of these items.
Try Some Fun Activities
Leisure time or playtime could also be utilized to help your child get over this bad habit. You can indulge your child in some fun activities like blowing bubbles, blowing a whistle, or blowing a cotton ball across a table, using a thick straw.
All these activities will surely increase their deep pressure input from the area of oral activities and at the same time, they will help increase the resistance of your child when it comes to chewing or sucking on non-food objects and items.
There are many reasons why your child might be mouthing or chewing constantly. If they are under the age of 2, this is typical behavior as toddlers mouth items to explore. However, if your child is older than 2, there might be some other underlying medical, sensory, or self-soothing reasons why your child might be chewing.
As adults, it is important for us to find out the underlying reason why our child might be exhibiting these chewing behaviors. If you are not sure, you can talk to your child’s doctor or occupational therapist.
10 tips for kids who need to chew – an oral sensory diet. ARK Therapeutic. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://www.arktherapeutic.com/blog/10-tips-for-kids-who-need-to-chew-an-oral-sensory-diet/
Inside Out. (n.d.) What is Pica? Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://insideoutinstitute.org.au/resource-library/what-is-pica#:~:text=Individuals%20who%20are%20institutionalised%20particularly,)%20and%2For%20zinc%20deficiency
McKenna, K. (2021, July 15). The oral sensory system: Why some kids chew on everything and how you can help. The Autism Helper. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://theautismhelper.com/why-some-kids-chew-on-everything-and-how-you-can-help/
Oral sensory seeking – why is my child still putting things in their mouth? GriffinOT. (2021, November 11). Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://www.griffinot.com/child-oral-sensory-seeking/#:~:text=Oral%20sensory%20seeking%2C%20where%20a,suck%20on%20non%2Dfood%20objects.
Your Kids Table. (2021, September 8). Everything oral sensory: The total guide. Your Kid’s Table. Retrieved May 8, 2022, from https://yourkidstable.com/oral-sensory-processing/