The Oral Sensory System: Why Some Kids Chew on Everything and How You Can Help

Categories: Sensory | Sensory Series

Do you ever find yourself saying these words:’stop biting your nails!’ or ‘don’t put that in your mouth!’ ?  I bet many of us have worked with children who seem to want to chew on everything.  This can be a very concerning behavior from a safety and hygiene perspective.  But if a child is engaging in this type of behavior, there has to be a reason.  This oral sensory input is meeting a need.  Let’s explore today why a child may seek this type of input and how we can help them get it in a more appropriate way.  

The oral sensory system is super important.  We can think about this system not only as the sense of taste (which we will focus on in a future post) but also oral motor input.  When the oral sensory system is working efficiently, children are able to eat a variety of foods with various textures, participate in oral hygiene routines easily, and are able to focus and regulate without seeking out additional chewing/oral motor input. However, not every child will process this information efficiently and therefore may need our help.

Why do some kids chew more than others?

It is developmentally appropriate and expected to see a young baby or toddler putting items in his mouth – this is one of the main ways babies begin to explore the world.  When a young child is upset, we frequently give them oral motor input like a pacifier or a bottle.  Oral input is calming.  As kids get older though, it is more concerning to see them putting items in their mouths.  

Here’s the thing – kids who chew really NEED to chew.  Simply asking them to stop will not work. Therefore, it is so important to get to the ‘why’.  Why is this child chewing?  When does it happen?  Are there any patterns?  Children who chew tend to underrespond to oral sensory input – meaning they need more input to self regulate.  They actively seek out that input by chewing on whatever they can.  In my personal experience, I tend to see children chew on their fingers/clothes when they are stressed/anxious, trying to focus, or bored.  A child may also chew to get deep pressure input through his jaw.  Getting to the ‘why’ will help you determine next steps. If a child is chewing because he is bored, keeping him actively engaged in activities with his hands may eliminate the chewing behavior.  However, if a child is chewing because he is seeking deep pressure input, he may need a different set of strategies.

When it comes to most sensory challenges, I like to think of ways to embed opportunities for children to get the input they need throughout the day within natural routines as well as exploring options for replacement of behavior.  You don’t necessarily always have to schedule a sensory break away from the child’s routine, or buy a bunch of special equipment. There is a lot you can do with what you have and within the child’s routine with a little creativity!  

Here are some ways you can help the child who chews on everything:

 

1.Heavy Work

It may seem really weird that I am talking about heavy work and moving your whole body in the context of kids who chew.  But if you think about it, you get a lot of deep pressure input through your jaw when you chew. A child may be seeking that deep pressure input through chewing.  Therefore, try incorporating heavy work activities into your day to help with chewing behaviors. Check out my previous posts here and here for ideas to get you started!

2. Chewing alternatives

You may hear these referred to as ‘chewies’.  There are seriously SO MANY OPTIONS. There are different levels out there for light chewers and more significant chewers.  Here is a brief list of some options to explore:

  • Items that can be worn:There are many options for chewies that can be worn, such as necklaces or bracelets.Check out some of these companies for options: ARK therapeutic, Fun and function.  Amazon also has a lot of options.  You can search for ‘chewelry’ or ‘chewies’.  Many male students I work with like the necklaces that look like Legos or trains.  Some of the little girls I have worked with have really liked the bright beaded necklaces.  
  • Items that can be held: There are some you can hold, like the p’s and q’s.  Search the same companies listed above for options.  
  • Pencil toppers: These can be really helpful for students who chew on their pencils and can be found at the same companies listed above.
  • Gum is a great option if your student can safely chew it!

3. Try crunchy/chewy foods during meal and snack times

Harder to chew foods can help give the input a child is looking for.  Foods that are crunchy or chewy can be really great options for snacks and lunch.  Think carrots, apples, pretzels, etc. Intense flavors can also help – think sour, minty, spicy.  Some candies can be really great for meeting oral needs- like Starburst, Sour Patch kids, Laffy taffy – obviously, we don’t want to always give kids candy but these can definitely be an option.  

4. Use straws

I have a transition age student who needs to chew – and he prefers to chew on a straw.  The CamelBak water bottles with the bite valve straw are fabulous – you have to bite the straw to use the water bottle which is perfect for kids who need to chew. Have your child use a straw to eat yogurt or a milkshake -having to suck the thick liquid through the straw can really work those muscles.   These silicone straws can provide some nice input too. 

5. Vibration

Try using an electric toothbrush during hygiene routines.  I have found cheap electric toothbrushes at Aldi for less than $5!  The vibration of the electric toothbrush gives intense input. Some children may not like it, but for others it will be another option to incorporate oral input during daily routines.  I have also had students who benefit from using a Z vibe, which can be found here.

6. Make it fun

Play and leisure time is a great time to incorporate activities that can help children who chew.  Activities like blowing a pinwheel, blowing bubbles, blowing a pom pom across a table with a straw – can be really great for our kids. 

Chewing can be a really difficult behavior to tackle, but when you find the right combination of strategies, your child will be much more regulated and able to participate in important daily activities.  What are your favorite strategies to help students who chew? Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear from you!

This post is for informational purposes only.  The information provided is general in nature. Please contact your occupational therapist for specific questions regarding your child/student.

16 Comments

  1. I have a question regarding a 5 year old student I am consulting with who is not on the spectrum. He does have attentional issues. He is constantly seeking oral input, he is licking objects, sucking his thumb etc. However he is also very congested most of the time and is a mouth breather. Is there a correlation between this?

    Reply
  2. I would check with a doctor to rule out medical causes!

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  3. Just wanted to say thank you! After being repeatedly irritated by my 6 year old son’s need to juts pick stuff up from the floor, stick it in his mouth and chew it, I found your article in a quick google search. Your words helped me normalise the situation and actively seek a solution to his chewing habit. My son is not diagnosed autistic or shows any autistic tendencies for that matter. However, in my mind the very existence of a “spectrum” means that we all sit on it in some place…. chewing fingernails is such a common habit in children anyhow. Thinking about it, I too am chewing the top of my pen during every video call that I am on, so I went and bought 2 sets of pencil toppers 🙂

    Reply
    • Chewing happens to those who are on the ADD/ADHD side of neurodiverse as well, not just autistic spectrum.

      Reply
  4. Hi Marie, so happy to hear it was helpful! Thanks for reading 🙂

    Reply
  5. My 7 year old grandson is on the spectrum, he doesn’t speak. He constantly puts everything in his mouth to chew. Leaves, mulch, dirt, bark, etc. We don’t know what to do,,so hard to be outside, and I constantly yelling NO at him, chasing after him. It’s exhausting. HELP

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    • I understand the feeling! I have many clients in ABA that are going through this too.

      Reply
  6. Hi Brenda! I would recommend reaching out to your doctor to rule out any medical needs. An OT evaluation may also be helpful to help create a specific plan for your grandson. Best of luck and thank you for reading!

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  7. I just purchased some chew necklaces for my 17 yr old. He doesn’t have any diagnoised illnesses however he is very smart and loves to chew on everything that fits in his mouth shirts, jewlery, money, you name it. Hoping these necklaces help, I use to buy teething rings but he would break them all. while at store I was looking for a alternative since all his new shirts are chewed and he recently got a cool necklace I found in his mouth, I said thats it and googled adult teething rings, wish would have found sooner anyway just wanted to share my story with everyone, it happens to all kids, alll ages, all levels….chew happens.

    Reply
  8. Thank you for your article. I have a 4 year old grandson that picks up everything and puts in his moth. He has just been placed in special Ed He puts everything in his mouth so was looking online and came across your article. I am going to start researching and see what I can do to help. Unfortunately I live 2 hours away so don’t see him all the time.

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    • Hi Kelly, happy to hear this has been helpful for you! Thanks for reading 🙂

      Reply
  9. My child is 4 has Downs, none verbal, not mobile and only has liquid food as can’t swallow solids. She constantly puts not just her fingers but whole hand in her mouth. If hands in gloves etc will do same with feet. At a loss as why this is happening and how to help her. Happens all day, every day and is very frustrating.

    Reply
    • Hi Sophia! Thank you for reading. It sounds like your child is seeking a lot of oral sensory input. Oral sensory input can be very regulating. Sometimes when children are on liquid diets, they seek oral sensory input even more as it is not something they typically experience. It might be a good idea to check in with your pediatrician about this, and also consult with an occupational therapist who can help with your child’s specific needs.

      Reply
  10. Hello! Thank you for this fantastic article! I work in Early Intervention as an itinerant specialized instructor. I support a child in Headstart who puts objects in his mouth and taps his teeth with them. We’ve tried chew necklaces and hand-held chew toys. He have also tried vibrating toothbrushes and vibrating chew devices. He seems to prefer to seek different items to tap on his teeth on throughout the classroom. We are in the process of re-evaluating him for a sensory diet / OT. I was wondering if you’ve found any unique strategies for children that like to tap their teeth with objects vs. chew. I’m also suggesting that we explore the heavy work strategy and crunchy snacks. I love the idea of blowing bubbles and the camel straw cup. We will definitely be trying those! 🙂

    Reply
  11. My son is 2.5 old and seeks oral input by putting objects or his hands in his mouth. What other signs should I look for before we see and OT. And would that help?

    Reply
    • Hi Valentina,
      Thanks for reading. Many babies and young toddlers put their hands and other items in their mouths, but as they get older this tends to decrease. If you continue to notice your child seeking sensory input in a way that is impacting their ability to participate in daily routines and activities, an OT evaluation may be helpful!

      Reply

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