When a parent or teacher sees their child chewing on clothing or other items it can cause alarm. It may be seen as a red flag for other sensory issues such as sensory processing disorder or for autism.
As we noted in our post on oral sensory seeking, babies and infants typically put things in their mouths. The 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.
For the child chewing 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?
It can help firstly 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 it e.g. exams or a school trip? Does it happen more when they are worried or are they overloaded?
When there is a pattern then you may be able to identify what is increasing your child’s arousal and making them need to help 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.
When you think it could be linked to sensory overload then you will need to consider how this sensory overload can be reduced. This may mean adding in more down time during your child’s week. It may help to include extra heavy work during their day. Some of the activities suggested below may also help. Your child may also benefit from assessment by an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration for further help and support around sensory processing.
For children who are more worried or anxious and trying to self soothe due to this, it could also be helpful to use strategies suggested for anxiety. We do not have any specific information on anxiety on our site but would the Young Minds website. They have an article on supporting children with anxiety here. These strategies would be more applicable to children ages four and up.
Suggested activities to help stop a child chewing on their clothes or other items.
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
I know that this is a love or hate suggestion, however, gum can be a great option for children, especially older children who frequently chew. You need to establish rules like it must go into a tissue then into the bin, you must keep it inside your mouth, and no bubble blowing but I do find that children can manage this. I would also suggest sugar-free gum. What can work particularly well is two pieces of gum as it gives that extra bit of resistance when you bit down.
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.
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 post. 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.
Chew toys can help stop a child chewing their clothes
If your child is really sucking or chewing everyday items all of the time, they may find a 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 chew toy it is helpful to consider firstly how hard your child chews and also where in their mouth they like to chew.
If they bite down with a lot of force then I would recommend a thicker more robust chew toy. If they prefer to chew on their back teeth then a longer thinner toy may be more appropriate. When a child chews on their front teeth a more circular toy may work better for them. Where a child is sucking as well as chewing they may prefer a slightly thicker chew toy. We will be writing a post on choosing a chew toy, so join our mailing list to be notified when this is released.
There are many suggestions online for inexpensive chew toy solutions such as aquarium tubing or straws. I understand why parents would prefer a less expensive option but I am not happy to recommend these as it is difficult to know whether they are safe. Often single use plastic products contain BPA. Chew toys from reputable companies have been specifically designed for that purpose.
Some children also find vibration helpful. There is a product called the ARK z-vibe which is very robust and designed for children. The best search term to find this is ‘ARK Z-vibe’ as other terms do give back some interesting search results!
If you have found this post helpful join our mailing list or follow us on twitter or facebook be the first to know when we release new articles. And don’t forget to share the article using the buttons below if you think someone else might find it helpful.
Join our mailing list to stay up to date with our latest news and products. We send a monthly newsletter with our updates. From time to time it also includes promotions on our courses and products. You can customise your choices when you sign up and GriffinOT will never send you any mail you don’t sign up for.