Every day my son comes home from school, his shirt is drenched with saliva and the collar is misshapen. Fabric that has been chewed does not bounce back in the wash, so we have had to throw away some of his shirts, since they aren’t fit for donation. Last week while he was running down the basketball court, he was simultaneously trying to chew his jersey collar at the same time. When I ask him about it, he says he doesn’t realize he is doing it. Repeated reminders have no effect. This is what we call oral fixation in children.
Chewing items or exploring things with their mouths is common and normal in small children. Early Childhood Intervention says that children 18-24 months go through a common “oral mouthing” stage that is a part of development. They make the distinction that older children who put objects in their mouths (pencils, clothing, toys, etc.) have an oral fixation.
“Children may be exhibiting oral fixation if they are persistently biting fingernails, putting hands or fingers in her/his mouth, or putting shirts/toys/books in the mouth constantly. If a child has a pattern of ingesting or eating non-food materials such as dirt or paper that lasts for at least one month, which could be considered ‘pica,’ a physician should be contacted.” (ECI)
What is the cause of oral fixation in children? Some experts associate it with anxiety. My son started his habit this fall, after he started kindergarten in a class separate from his twin brother for the first time in his life. He doesn’t seem overtly anxious, but his habit continues. Some days are worse than others, but I’m not sure why.
Early Childhood Intervention also says that children might be hyposensitive in their mouths and crave the sensation they get by sucking or chewing on non-food items. They could lean toward strong flavors like spicy, salty or sour. Oral fixation might also be due to another diagnosis or a developmental delay.
Some recommend diverting this anxiety into other behaviors, like supplying chewy foods at mealtimes and products made especially for chewing. Some moms have had success allowing their kids to suck on flavorful hardy candy or chew gum.
If the problem persists for a long period of time, parents should consult a therapist to explore other coping strategies. My son has seen a speech therapist, who reported that he does not meet the criteria for a speech delay, although he has some trouble with pronunciation. An appointment with an occupational therapist could be next.
It has been a few months, and some days (like today), my son informs me proudly that he didn’t chew his shirt at all. Then he sits down to play with his toys, and when I look over, he is absentmindedly chewing his shirt.