As a parent, it can be frustrating to watch your child putting toys and other items in their mouths at an age when you feel like they should be over it. The ruined clothing, the mangled pencils, the knarled fingernails and saliva-soaked hair! But rather than your child simply wanting to chew or developing a bad habit, it is quite likely that your child is fulfilling a need to chew or suck on non-food items.
Mouthing objects around them is an important part of the development of infants and toddlers. Beyond exploration, chewing and thumb sucking is a powerful self-soothing technique. For many children, chewing and sucking naturally begin to wane as they reach school age. But for many others, chewing and sucking as a means of comfort during stressful times or feelings of anxiety persists into adolescence and even into adulthood.
Chewing For a Reason
Children who chew on items after the age when they would be expected to stop are probably doing so for a reason. Trying to force them to stop or punishing them for the behaviour likely won't help. In fact, it could do more harm than good. Chewing may be the way that your child deals with feelings of anxiety or discomfort. It could also be a means of gaining control over their attention, allowing them to focus when necessary. Whatever the reason, the ability to self-regulate is a good thing, provided they are chewing safely.
Studies have shown that chewing with only a moderate amount of resistance (for example, chewing a piece of gum) can actually reduce levels of stress-causing hormones in the body, allowing you to feel calmer. The tougher the chew, the more positive feedback the body receives, and the greater the benefit.
Neurodiversity Plays a Role
The answer to why some kids chew and others don't may lie in neurodiversity. It's the concept that all brains process external stimuli a little bit differently. For one child, a crowded and noisy playground may be fun and exciting. For another, it may be unsettling and stressful. One child may be able to focus their attention on a math lesson, while another becomes distracted and anxious. Chewing can help kids soothe themselves and to deal with sensory overload. Chewing can also be a means of expending excess energy, allowing your child to pay attention for longer periods of time or focus on tasks. Neurodiverse children, such as those on the autism spectrum or diagnosed with ADHD, often have additional needs to chew even as their age advances, though many neurotypical kids do too.
Signs that Your Child is a Chewer
Does your child regularly chew on clothing items, toys or pencils? Kids who bite their nails, chew or suck on their hair, or put necklaces or jewellery in their mouths may be feeling the urge to chew. Exploring the reasons behind the chewing will help you find ways to manage it if necessary. How do you know if your child is chewing because of sensory needs or simply out of boredom or habit? Look for patterns of when your child may be more likely to chew. What else is happening at the time? Are they feeling anxious, or overstimulated or tired? Once you have an idea of the reasons why you can look for ways to help them cope with safe chewing items or alternatives.
Finding Alternatives to Chewing
Chewing is just one of many oral sensory activities. There are others that may give your child a similar input to avoid chewing, for example, the sucking action of drinking thick liquids through a straw or any liquid through a very narrow straw. Blowing bubbles, blowing whistles, noisemakers or musical instruments. Blowing up balloons provides the same input. Eating crunchy snacks or foods that require a lot of chewing can also give your child the sensory input they need. While it may not be suitable for school, chewing sugarless gum could help your child avoid the need for chewing less appropriate items.
Providing Safe Chewing Options
When kids chew toys or items that aren't meant for chewing, they can put themselves in danger of choking on items that may break as they chew. Instead, look for options like chewable pencil toppers, chewable necklaces, and chewie bracelets made of food-grade silicone or a tougher material that can withstand older children's chewing. These items will not break apart or break down and are relatively easy to clean and sanitize.
While kids may chew or suck on a variety of non-food items, the reasons why are often very similar, as a means of self-soothing or dealing with a stressful or overstimulating environment. While you may not be able to change the environment, you can give your child the tools to manage their sensory needs safely, discreetly and effectively.