This is a guest post from my sweet friend, Kyndra Steinmann, who blogs at Sticks, Stones and Chicken Bones.
For years, I have been trying to get my daughter, Mouse, to keep things that aren’t food or drink out of her mouth. Not just her fingers, but pens and pencils, buttons on her dresses or any other part of her clothing she can get into her mouth, the edges of paperback books, and hair ribbons. If it can go into her mouth, it does. That sort of behavior is fine if you are a toddler, but she’s 5 and a half and when we go to the grocery store, she chews on the seatbelt strap of the cart or “tastes” the edge of the checkout counter!
I found myself saying constantly “Take (insert sensory item here) out of your mouth. You aren’t a baby anymore.”
It was frustrating, especially when we had no pencils that could be sharpened because any pencil she had touched had been bitten to the point that the lead was broken inside. And, I couldn’t figure it out.
Why would anyone want to put something that wasn’t edible in their mouth?
I know people do (my husband, S, only buys one brand of pen because they have the most chewable caps, and he is famous in his family for having chewed up the edge of a younger sibling’s carseat when he was a teen), but I’ve never thought that was anything more than a bad habit! I learned differently this year at our state-wide homeschool convention.
Recognizing a child with the sensory need to chew
Mouse had gone to the children’s program and when I picked her up for lunch her plastic headband was sopping wet and bent out of shape, her name tag was missing since she had pulled it off and chewed it up, and she was walking around with one of the buttons on the front of her dress in her mouth. I took one look and realized that she was having fun, but that the echo-ey noise in the room was pushing her sensory buttons and she was literally holding off a meltdown by chewing!
All those times when I noticed that the chewing was much worse (and was frustrated because I thought she had gotten past her “bad habits”), were times that she was nervous or having a sensory input problem. Her pencils being chewed up in school were a grounding technique. Chewing is soothing to her and I had completely missed it and had been nagging at her about something she needed to do.
Finding sensory integration that works for a child who chews
We found some quiet space and she was able to go back for the afternoon session of the program, but as soon as we got home that night, I gave her one of her little brother’s pacifiers and sent her to her room for some quiet. The pacifier helped tremendously and I realized I was on to something.
I talked the sensory integration problem over with S and we decided to start giving her the pacifier during school and see if it helped her confidence and concentration. It did, but I noticed that she preferred to chew on the pacifier and she was still biting pencils and erasers.
Her little brother had a string of plastic teething beads he never used so I strung them on a ribbon to go around her neck and started requiring her to wear them during school. That was the ticket, they were hard enough to chew, had lots of different textures to provide oral stimulation, and suddenly she was able to do a whole math lesson without a fit of the weeps halfway through. The string of beads is a simple tool and I wish I had realized she needed a sensory input tool a long time ago.
Signs that your child chews for sensory input
As I considered Mouse’s need for chewing, I realized some characteristics that might relate to her sensory issue:
- She is very sensitive to food textures. The things she dislikes are all similar in texture although their tastes vary.
- She never sucked her thumb and was the earliest child to give up of the pacifier in our family.
- She wants to chew and feel things with her tongue and mouth not suck them.
Here’s what I should have noticed about her oral needs:
- When she puts things in her mouth at home, she is often tired, the noise level is too high, or some combination of stressors is changing her ability to adjust to the environment.
- When she puts things in her mouth or “tastes” them in public, they are either new or rarely encountered or she is chewing her clothing or fingers as a self-soothing mechanism.
- When I was involved in someone else’s lessons and left her to chew her pencil in peace, her work went better.
I did go online and look at various occupational therapy toys for oral stimulation but it seemed that most of those were either for children with a desire to primarily suck on things or who were learning to eat later in life. There were a few that were for children who liked to bite things but after reading the reviews, I decided that she likes the teething beads. They are cheap, easy to sanitize (I run them in the dishwasher every couple of weeks), and if they get over-chewed, I can easily replace them.
I was a little worried about what other people might think, but she recently participated in a day camp at a local museum, wore her beads every day, and no one said anything to either of us about them. For the most part, they look like a brightly colored little girl’s necklace, and I don’t think people really give them a second glance.
I’ve learned something too… Sometimes the things that I think of as “bad habits” are really coping skills, and when I can’t seem to help the children “break” a habit, I need to reevaluate!
Kyndra Steinmann blogs at Sticks, Stones and Chicken Bones on living in a house full of young children, unending questions and abundant grace.