Oral sensory seeking is a normal behaviour in babies and infants. They use sucking to help to calm and self soothe. This self-soothing can also be called self-regulation. It is 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 in their mouth until between the ages of 18-24 months and it helps their sensory motor development. They do this to learn more about the object, such as how big is it, how hard or soft is it, and what shape is it? Their mouth is like a second pair of eyes, giving the brain extra information about the objects in their world. The behaviour typically reduces from eighteen months but it can continue until two years. In this post I want to explore why some children continue with oral sensory seeking past this age. We 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?
Putting toys into their mouth
Sucking their thumb
Chewing their collar or sleeves
Putting their pencil in their mouth
Chewing pieces of paper
Common reasons a child might still be putting things in their mouths past the age of two include:
We just want to again emphasise that it is really normal for children under the age of to mouth items. The frequency can also increase when they are teething.
1. The child has developmental delays
As noted above children use their mouths to explore objects and their world. Children with developmental delays may continue to use their mouths to explore like an 18 month old as this is 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 in that sensorimotor stage of development and this is why they are still putting things in their mouth. These children need more time to develop past this stage than their typically developing peers.
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.
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. There is also 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’.
When is oral sensory seeking a ‘problem’?
Many children will continue to suck their thumb and chew on items after the age of two. This helps them to calm and self sooth. Oral sensory seeking can be a problem if the child is zoning out when they are chewing or sucking items and therefore not listening in class. It can be a problem for some children as they develop a rash around their mouth, which can be painful and cause discomfort. Some children end up destroying their clothing or other items because they are mouthing or chewing them excessively. As the child gets older it can also be a problem as it makes them stand out from their peers and may lead to bullying and affect self-esteem.
How can I help?
Where you feel the oral sensory seeking is related to a developmental delay, then it will be important to provide your child with developmental age appropriate activities. These may be games and activities that are at a lower level than their actual age. I would recommend toys that are designed for under two years and are therefore safe to mouth. You can be quite creative with this. Look for toys with different textures. If the child is able to eat safely, you can also use harder food items, such as teething rusks, long carrots, broccoli stems. Different temperatures can give variety. The child may also like toys that vibrate. There is a product called the ARK z-vibe which is very robust and designed for children. It is best to search using ‘ARK Z-vibe’, otherwise you can receive some interesting search results!
Your child will also likely enjoy activities with a lot of sensory input such as water play, corn flour or edible finger paints, general toys with light, noise or vibration. You must just make sure that any item you are using is safe to be put in their mouth and cannot be accidentally swallowed. In addition, children who are oral sensory seeking benefit from general sensorimotor play and games. This includes swings, sand pits, messy play, soft play areas, swimming, etc. For children in wheelchairs, I would definitely recommend seeking out a wheelchair swing or sensory play space they can access movement in.
Oral sensory seeking to help with self-regulation and sensory overload
This will depend on what your child is putting into their mouth and when. Firstly it is helpful to identify if there is a pattern to the oral seeking behaviour. Does it happen more often at home or at school? Is it happening more in the morning or the evening? What events or activities trigger it? It is happening more often when your child is tired? Does it happen more when they are worried? Could they be overloaded? Might they be bored?
If there is a pattern then you may be able to identify what is increasing your child’s arousal. 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. When there is a specific event or activity you may be able to modify the activity to make it easier for your child to manage. Or, if you think they are bored, you could find another activity for them to do.
If you think it is more linked to sensory overload, then you will need to consider how this sensory overload can be reduced during their day. Some of the oral activities below may help with regulation. Heavy work can also be a useful strategy. We discuss heavy work further here. Your child may also benefit from assessment by an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration.
Activities to help children who are oral sensory seeking
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.
For children that prefer sucking you can try:
Frozen fruit to suck
Ice cubes to suck
Sugar free hard lollies / candies
Homemade frozen juice sticks (using fruit juice)
If your child prefers crunchy textures you could try:
Dried banana chips
Dehydrated vegetable chips/crisps
Crunchy muesli bars or flapjacks
Raw carrot sticks or other raw vegetables
For children who prefer to chew:
We exploring chewing further in our post Help! Why is my Child Chewing on Clothing and Other Things? We recommend that you read this post next.
Other oral activities to help children oral sensory seekers include:
Musical instruments such as a harmonica, or recorder
Bubble blowing – you can use bubble straws for children who can’t use regular wands
Drinking drinks through a straw
Water bottles, such as a camelback, that require a strong suck to release the water
Remember, most oral sensory seekers are looking for ways to soothe themselves and stay calm. It is a way to self-regulate. So, once you recognise the symptom and its triggers, and find alternative safe self-regulation strategies that work for them, it does not take long for behaviour to change.
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