Oral seeking is part of normal development
Oral sensory seeking behaviour, or mouthing items, is a normal behaviour in babies and infants. They use sucking to help to calm themselves and self soothe. This self-soothing can also be called self-regulation. It explains why dummies or pacifiers work so well to help calm down an upset baby. Sucking is also an important survival reflex, which is essential for feeding.
As they get older, infants then use their mouth to explore the world. It is very normal for children to put everything into their mouth between the ages of 18-24 months. This helps their sensory motor development. It helps them to learn more about an object, such as how big is it, how hard or soft is it, and its shape. The mouth acts like a second pair of eyes, giving the brain extra information about the objects in the world. This behaviour typically reduces from eighteen months but it can continue until two years of age. In this article, I will to explore why some children continue with oral sensory seeking past this age. I will consider why they are still putting non food objects into their mouth and share some ideas on how to help.
What might it look like if a child is oral sensory seeking?
For children that are over two years of age, you might continue to see these behaviours. Remember these behaviours are very normal in children under two years of age. However, past the age of two they would be less common.
Common reasons a child might still be putting things in their mouths past the age of two
We just want to again emphasise that it is really normal for children under the age of two to mouth items. The frequency can also increase when children are teething, again completely normal behaviour. Here we will discuss some reasons that older children might continue with oral sensory seeking past this age.
1. The child has developmental delays
As noted above, children use their mouths to explore objects and their world. Older children with developmental delays may continue to use their mouths to explore objects like an 18 month old does as this reflects their developmental age. So, despite on paper being older as they have had their birthday, their brains are still processing information at a much younger age level. They are still working in the sensorimotor stage of development. This is why they are still putting things in their mouth as it is normal for this developmental stage. Their behaviour is essentially reflecting the developmental age rather than their actual age. These children need more time to develop past this stage than their typically developing peers. We give some suggestions of appropriate activities below.
2. The child is using the oral sensory seeking input to self-regulate or self-soothe
As we said above, sucking is very calming. It is a strategy that babies use to help self soothe and regulate. Some children continue to use this strategy even when they are older. It can be a useful sign that your toddler or young child is upset, tired or overwhelmed. It can also be an indicator that they do not have another strategy to use to help themselves calm down.
3. The child is experiencing sensory overload
Children with sensory processing difficulties can put things in their mouth or chew when they are overloaded too. Chewing is also seen in children with autism and sensory issues. Sensory overload occurs when the child or adult has experienced too much sensory input from their environment. Their brains become overwhelmed by the amount of information that they have to process. They, therefore, use the oral sensory seeking to help with self-regulation. Chewing and sucking helps to self soothe so it is a strategy that children and adults use to help to calm themselves down if they are experiencing sensory overload. Because the jaw is one of the most powerful muscles in the human body, chewing gives the brain a big hit of proprioceptive sensory input. We explore some ideas to help below, so, keep reading.
4. In some cases, the child may have problems with their teeth
In some cases, the child may have problems with their teeth. It may be that their adult teeth are cutting through. However, it could also be a sign of decay, or infection. If this is suspected, the child should have a check up with their dentist.
5. They may have a medical condition called ‘pica’
Children with pica put all things, not just food, into their mouths. This could be anything from a cigarette butt, to Lego, dirt or a coin. These children don’t distinguish edible and non-edible items. Research has suggested that between 4% and 26% of people with learning disabilities show pica, and the
likelihood of pica occurring increases the more severe the level of learning disability. The National Autism Society suggests that the reasons for pica could by medical, dietary, sensory or behavioural. The NHS provide information about it on page 23 of this booklet, ‘Eating Difficulties in Children with Disabilities’.