As we noted in our article on oral sensory seeking, babies and infants typically put things in their mouths. Infants use sucking to help to calm and self soothe. As they get older, they use their mouth to explore the world. It is very normal for children to put everything in their mouth until between the ages of 18-24 months. However, it is expected that his behaviour will reduce and finally stop. Some children with sensory processing disorder and/or autism will continue to chew things well past the age of two. You may see the child chewing on clothing items such as their collar or sleeves. They may also chew other items such as, hair, pencils, toys or whatever they can get their hands on.
What causes a child to chew on clothes or other item?
Chewing is a form of oral sensory seeking. There can be a few reasons why children chew on their clothing or other items. Firstly, it might be that they have developmental delays. Children with delays continue to put things into their mouth as their level of development is lower than their actual age. It is normal for younger children to put items in their mouth. Secondly, they child may have dental issues, for these children a check up with their dentist is recommended. Next, there is a medical condition called Pica which is where children eat non-food items. Finally, the child may be experiencing sensory overload and is likely using the chewing to help calm their nervous system. This is common in children with sensory processing disorder, autism and learn disabilities. Chewing is sometimes a strategy used by children with ADHD. We explore these five reasons in more depth in our article oral sensory seeing. Here, we will focus more specifically on ideas to help with chewing.
When a child chews on clothing – it’s all about proprioception!
Chewing is thought to give a big hit of proprioceptive feedback to the brain. Proprioception, or the feedback from our muscles and joints, is thought to be very calming and organising. Our jaw muscle is one of the strongest in the body and chewing, therefore, gives a huge hit of proprioceptive feedback to the brain.
Often when there is a child chewing on clothing it is in an effort to help to calm themselves down. They are using the extra proprioceptive feedback from their jaw muscles to help themselves self soothe and regulate. This might be because they are finding other sensory inputs (e.g. noise) in the environment too overwhelming. It could be that they are experiencing sensory overload. They may be worried about something. It could be that the pace of the activity is too much for them to keep up with. Sometimes you may see a child chewing on clothing because it is helping them focus their attention. In some cases there may also be a developmental delay, we cover this in more detail in our post on oral sensory seeking.
How can I help to stop a child chewing on clothing and other items?
Firstly, it can help to identify if there is a pattern to when the child is chewing. Is it happening more often at home or at school, during term time or holidays? Does it happen more in the morning or the evening? Is there an event or an activity that triggers the child to chew on their clothes more, e.g., exams or a school trip? Does it happen more when they are worried? Are they overloaded?
If there is a pattern, you may be able to identify what is increasing your child’s arousal and leading them to need to calm down by chewing. If it is a specific event or activity hopefully you will be able to adapt it to make it easier and less stressful for your child to access. Your child may benefit from doing some of the activities below prior to the event to help prime their system. Heavy work activities prior and after may also be helpful.
If it is a time of day then you could try some of the suggestions below to help your child to stay a bit calmer at this time. You can also use them to help with transitions. Transitions can often be a trigger point for children with autism and they may chew on items at this time.
Suggested activities to help stop a child chewing on their clothes or other items
For some children, whole body movement can help with regulation and decrease the need to chew. Soft play is a great option. Crawling can be helpful, especially if you can set up an obstacle course with tunnels go through and cushions to crawl over. Finally, linear swinging can be a great way to provide movement. Linear means going backwards and forwards instead of round and round. So, standard playground and garden swings are great. Straight slides can also provide this input as well. Movement can be especially helpful for children who are quite sedentary. It is not always helpful for children who are very sensitive as it can increase their arousal.
Please note many of these activities include food. It is expected that the adult using the suggestions considers any allergies or dietary requirements the child may have.
You could include chewy items into your child’s lunch box or for them to use at times when they are needing to calm down. Foods could include:
Dried fruit – mango is particularly good, as is apple, papaya, pineapple, and small bananas
Chewy muesli bars
We know that this is a love or hate suggestion, however, chewing gum can be a great option for children, especially older children who frequently chew. You may need to establish rules around using the gum. For example, ‘It must go into a tissue then into the bin,’ ‘You must keep it inside your mouth,’ and ‘No bubble blowing’. Many children can manage this, especially if they find it is helping their concentration. In addition, make sure you choose a sugar-free gum. Using two pieces of gum can also help, as it gives even more resistance during chewing.
Breathing exercises are being increasingly shown to help to calm and organise our nervous system and brains. The paid version of the Headspace app has some excellent guided breathing meditations for children. The Smiling Minds app is free and also has good content for children. The charity scope has also published a product called Mindful Monsters, which includes breathing and relaxation activities designed for children.
Blowing bubbles is also an easy way to help younger children take deeper breaths. BLO-pens are also lots of fun and a simple way to encourage children to take deep breaths. There are some cheaper versions available but we recommend the original brand as the quality is better.
It has been suggested that the sensory input from heavy work activities is calming and organising. We discuss heavy work further in this article. Including some of these activities into your child’s or your own day may help them to remain calmer throughout the day and hopefully reduce the need to self soothe by using their mouths.
Children who chew would also likely benefit from whole body proprioceptive input, such as jumping on a large trampoline or swimming, especially diving under the water.
Sensory chew toys
If your child is really sucking or chewing everyday items all of the time, they may find a sensory chew toy helpful. There are many different chew toys available. Some look like everyday items, such as a necklace or a bracelet. Others are more obvious. When choosing a sensory chew toy it is helpful to consider firstly how hard your child chews and also where in their mouth they like to chew. We explore this further in our post Tips for Choosing Sensory Chew Toys.
Where to next?
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To learn more about sensory regulation we recommend this article Sensory regulation strategies – what are they and how can they help your child?
To learn more about sensory processing we recommend this article What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?