Why do they do that? Mouthing stuff. (Ew, gross!)

Why does my toddler put everything in her mouth! It’s so gross and dirty!

Well, yes, it can be gross and dirty and saliva-y, but it’s a totally normal part of life (for a while, anyway.) Let’s take a look at where mouthing comes from and then talk about what to do about it once it’s no longer “appropriate”.

First of all: when infants are born, they’re completely dependent on their suck-swallow-breathe reflex to even stay alive, right? So, that tells us that the mouth is a powerful starting place, literally from (before) Day One. And because the mouth is also closely connecting to one’s olfactory sense, baby is pretty much relying on the mouth to process lots of incoming taste, smell and touch stimuli. Eyes are not working all that well yet at birth; ears are not locating sounds just yet (though baby does startle to loud enough sounds). So, baby’s mouth is their primary sense organ!

Then all throughout the first year, as physical growth and development occurs, allowing baby to gradually take control of their heads, arms, hands, legs, feet, torsos, infants learn to experience the world through more of their senses (the process of sensory integration). But their primary mechanism for learning is still touch-based. And the mouth is the central point of their tactile system -- as much as we think it should be their hands or feet. Yes, the hands and feet are taking over as the primary “feeling parts”, but the mouth is in charge until hands and feet are ready (around age 2).

By around age 2, kids generally stop putting non-food items in their mouths. They can learn enough about the world without the oral input. They’ve learned to eat most solid foods. And they’ve gotten most of their teeth. And all of that development usually takes care of the mouthing. Of course, you’ll still want to remove small pieces from their environment just in case!

But, you say, my two year old is still mouthing all of his toys and lots of other things too.

If you’ve got a two year old who is still mouthing as a primary way of exploring the world around them, then it is time to look at why that is.

Is there a sensory processing issue? Is your child under- or over-responsive to tactile stimuli? Usually (but not always), older kids who mouth items tend to be under-responsive to touch: they are not able to really feel things “clearly” (kind of like needing glasses for your skin). The brain doesn’t register sensation unless there is a lot of it. So, kids who might have reduced sensitivity on their hands, might put things in their mouths (a LOT more sensitive in there!) to get the amount of sensory information they need. In other words: how does it feel? is it bumpy? Smooth? Regular? Irregular? Sharp? Dangerous? Soft? Hard?

As an aside - sometimes kiddos who are a little under-responsive to touch can also drool. We’ll talk about that in a later video, but suffice it to say that unless your child is teething, they generally shouldn’t be drooling.

So, what to do if you have an older kiddo who’s still mouthing? Do they automatically need therapy? Not necessarily. Try some strategies first, and then decide whether some occupational therapy might be in order.

Replacing the mouthing behavior is going to be the best way to handle the situation. Telling them to “stop” putting things in their mouths hasn’t worked yet, and it’s unlikely to in the future. The need to chew/mouth things comes from a neurobiological need. They’re not trying to make you mad. They’re not trying to be bad. They’re just trying to feel good in their own skin. Mouthing things helps with that sometimes. So, replace “inappropriate” things with appropriate things:

  1. Chewy toys. There are SOOOOOO many really good chewy toys out there for kids these days. They are unobtrusive, attractive, durable and inexpensive. Tons of kids have them. There’s no right or wrong answer here: some kids like a really firm texture; some like a softer one. Try some and see what works for your child.

  1. Gum. Don’t write this off yet. People have different feelings about gum, so decide what yours are, and if gum is a nonstarter, then stop reading here. If you’re curious, though, I’ll tell you about my daughter. When my daughter was a toddler, she had some sensitivities - more over-responsive than under, actually. But there were times when she was stressed or nervous when she would put things in her mouth (mostly her thumb) and pretty much shut down. We used gum strategically to help her keep her thumb out of her mouth and to help her regulate her body. We had strict rules around gum chewing (when, where, how, etc.), but eventually she learned how to ask for it when she needed it, and it really helped her.

If you are strategic about replacing inappropriate items with more appropriate ones and helping your child learn what is and is not ok to put in their mouths, they will usually learn pretty quickly. If, however, you’ve implemented these strategies and not seen a significant decrease in mouthing, see a developmental specialist -- probably an occupational therapist. An OT and a speech therapist might work together to help your child, depending on where the areas of need are, so that your child can stay safe and stop mouthing!

All my best -