What to do when a child is still mouthing everything…
So, I am addressing this issue this week because it is only the first week of school and already a bunch of teachers and some friends have asked for advice about their student or their own child in regards to kids putting inedible objects in their mouth. Here is what I told them:
During infancy, children go through a developmental phase of putting things in their mouth. Toys, feet, clothing and everything else goes right in the mouth. This continues throughout the toddler years, and then they eventually outgrow it. At least, you hope they do!
Some kids continue to put inedible objects in their mouths into their preschool and school-age years. Although it is normal for kids to want to explore the world around them using all of their senses, it can also become a hygiene & safety issue. Additionally, it can become a social problem for some children when other children notice the habit. Children in Kindergarten should not be sucking on their sleeves or the neck of their shirts in class. Of course, some kids may occasionally bite the end of their pencil or bite their fingernails, but it should be addressed when it becomes a safety or social issue.
Chewing on the neck of a shirt is a common form of oral input for kids who are sensory seekers.
A child wearing a chewable necklace
So why are they doing it?
It is possible that your child is seeking oral sensory input. This means that they crave the sensations of having things in their mouth and may feel pleasure from the sensations of sucking, chewing, or licking. It might provide them comfort when they are upset or make them comfortable when they are relaxed and playing. Sometimes it even helps them to focus and pay attention. It depends on the kid!
So what can you do as a parent or a teacher?
As a teacher you should speak to the child privately about it. Tell them that you have noticed this habit and you are concerned because of germs, they are ruining their nice clothing, etc. Tell them that you would like to help them break this habit. With the child’s help, decide on a non-verbal signal that you will use to remind the child not to put things in their mouth. An example could be tapping his desk as you walk by, making direct eye contact and nodding at him, etc. The purpose is to alert the child of the behavior, not to alert his classmates or embarrass him.
Also, talk to the parent. Inform them what you are seeing and why you are concerned. They may have not noticed or they may not realize that the mouthing is developmentally inappropriate. Or, they may have some background info in regards to why it is happening (dental issues, speech therapy issues, sensory issues, etc.) . Tell the parent that you are open to helping the child to break the habit and let them know about the system you came up with (like the nod or the tap). If you are open to it and the school allows it, tell the parent to send in sugar-free chewing gum. If the child is craving oral input, chewing gum once or twice a day may be enough input to wean them from the habit. Don’t worry about what other kids will say if one child gets to chew gum. Explain that it is simply a tool that “Johnnie” needs in order to focus and do his work. Point out that some kids have a pencil grip and some kids don’t. Some kids have a cushion seat and some kids have a visual calendar on their desk. Gum is just another “school tool” that some kids use, and some kids don’t. End of story.
As a parent, there are more options. You can purposely give your child things to eat that are crunchy, chewy, or require hard work (aka heavy work) to eat. Here are some examples:
- Really crunchy pretzels (Miss Jaime prefers Synders large pretzels)
- Carrot sticks
- Dried Fruit (big ones like apricots or prunes, not raisins –too small)
- Sugar Free Fruit roll ups
- Sugar Free Lemon Drops
- Sugar Free gummy worms
- Sugar Free Licorice Sticks
- Slim Jim
Gum can be sensory “tool” at school
Crunchy snacks can help
These are all options to send in for snacks so your child can receive extra oral input throughout the day. You can also give them things that require hard sucking through a straw, such as drinkable yogurt—the thicker the better. Make sure you give them a straw! Notice that I wrote “sugar-free” for the candy objects. Sour is great, but sugar can lead to increased hyperactivity and a consequential crash when the sugar high is done. Try to give them really crunchy cereal for breakfast before they go to school.
For drinks at school, send in water bottles with a sports cap. Ask the teacher if the child can keep the bottle on the desk. These tops are chewable, and they are much more socially appropriate. Try to use a thermos with a plastic straw. If possible, put a regular straw inside the short straw of the thermos. This will encourage your child to suck up their drink, rather than to tip the spout into their mouth, which does not provide as much sensory input. At home, use a silly straw for regular drinks, because they require more sucking.
After school, provide your child with non-food sensory input items. Teach them how to blow up balloons and blow bubbles of all different sizes. Try to spend some time giving your child sensory input through their mouth every day. This will help them learn how to self-regulate the amount of sensory input they need. Use a vibrating toothbrush instead of a regular one. Set a timer or sing the ABC song and use the toothbrush for a little longer than usual. If they like it, brush more often. It can’t hurt!
Ask kids to sort pompoms by sucking them onto a straw—it’s harder than it looks
Blowing bubbles is hard work for little mouths
Sucking is harder to do than just drinking
Some objects are available through therapy catalogues that are specifically geared for kids who crave oral sensory input. Chewelry, Chewy tubes, and Pencil Toppers are just a few. You can try these out and see if they help at all.
These suggestions are simple solutions to help a common problem. If your child continues to persist in putting inedible objects in their mouth, see your physician or contact an Occupational Therapist or Speech Therapist for help.
Do you have any other techniques that have worked? Please share with us!
~ Miss Jaime, O.T.