Why is My Child Constantly Chewing on His Shirt? A Guide to Oral Motor Stimulation

“Why is my child constantly chewing on his shirt?” There are days where I will have a child enter the clinic with their collar completely soaked with saliva. It is more common than you would think. Although it is an annoying habit, your child is just regulating himself.Oral Motor Stimulation

At an early age, children develop the suck reflex, allowing them to fulfill basic human needs like nutrition. Because this reflex is integrated at such an early age, children learn that oral motor movements are a means to satisfy a basic need so that we may focus our attention elsewhere. Thus, many children seek oral motor stimulation as a means to regulate themselves. When a child places items in his mouth, such as pencils or shirt sleeves, he is seeking oral motor input in a sucking and chewing pattern. These movement patterns provide the child with sensory input that can assist a child to organize their minds and body, allowing him to focus on the task at hand. As a child ages, these motor behaviors can be identified and replaced with chewy tubes or foods. After all, even adults seek oral motor input- think about how you chew gum or chew on pencils when anxious.

Here is a list of possible alternatives to introduce to your child. They can be utilized in a variety of settings to provide the regulating benefits of oral motor stimulation:

  • Chewing gum or hard candy
  • Chewy tubes or chewelry
  • Crunchy foods of different textures
  • An electronic or vibrating toothbrush
  • Playing with whistles, harmonicas, blowing bubbles or blowing up balloons
  • Drinking thick liquids such as applesauce and yogurt through a straw

** be sure to always supervise your child with oral-motor stimulators for safety.

On the other side, oral motor stimulation seeking can be maladaptive. As children age out of the toddler years, these behaviors can be viewed as inappropriate in social settings, with a danger to health and safety as various items are mouthed. These behaviors, if not identified, could lead to behaviors like biting other children or overeating. It is for these reasons that occupational therapists provide suggestions for alternative oral motor input.

NSPT offers Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

5 replies
  1. malkie
    malkie says:

    Hi was wondering your thoughts abt children who chew on their clothing if working on the facial , palmer and Babinski reflex if that would help too?

    Reply
    • LibbyGalin
      LibbyGalin says:

      Hi there,

      Here is a response from Monal Patel, the author of the blog:
      Hello, facial reflexes go, including the rooting reflex and biting reflex, are related to oral motor control but do not directly correlate with oral motor seeking behaviors. I would be interested in knowing what age range you are referring to, as the mentioned reflexes should be integrated within 2-6 months. If you notice a child who is older than 6 months who is still displaying these reflexes it could be a sign of decreased tactile processing or a neurological impairment.
      Thanks!

      Reply
  2. Laura Thoele
    Laura Thoele says:

    We had a similar thing happen with several children in our local kindergarten class. Several of the children began to chew their collars/sleeves etc. We finally figured out that it was due to an abusive teacher and one of the teacher’s aides. They would hit the children, pull them out of their chairs by their clothes, yell at them, humiliate them in front of the class etc. etc. etc. A week after kindergarten ended, they all stopped chewing on their clothes.

    Reply

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