Sensory Integration for Children Who Chew

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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.”

sensory integration ideas for children who chew

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!

Lightbulb moment.

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.

chewing as a sensory need

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 SteinmannKyndra Steinmann blogs at Sticks, Stones and Chicken Bones on living in a house full of young children, unending questions and abundant grace.

Follow her on Twitter , Facebook and Pinterest.

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Comments

  1. Genny says

    This describes my son exactly! He hates chewy foods (no matter the taste), he never sucked his thumb and gave up his pacifier very early (was never that taken with it to begin with actually), and he is always mouthing and chewing things (but not sucking on things much). Thanks for this!

    • says

      As an OT specializing in sensory processing disorders, I often suggest to parents of children who seem to need extra oral-motor input that they schedule sensory breaks to allow for extra deep pressure, vestibular, and alternate oral input (like crunching/chewing/sucking) input every 90 minutes to 2 hours during waking hours. I have found that in many cases particularly whole-body deep pressure at that type of frequency will substitute for the need for inappropriate mouthing. Many parents agree instituting a sensory diet program is worth it, especially considering the risk of germ transfer, tooth breakage, and social judgement that goes along with mouthing/chewing for sensory input.

      • says

        Stephanie, thank you for sharing that critical information.

        I was wondering if there is lead in those beads and in the exterior of the pencils that are chewed. Does anyone know?

  2. Anna Mary says

    It’s so nice to know that I’m not the only mother going through this. Thanks for that. I’m going to give the teething beads a try and see if that helps.

    • says

      The ones I use are the teething beads you can buy at Walmart or Target. I just cut the original string and stuck them on a long piece of 1/2 inch hair ribbon. The ribbon gets a bit nasty after a while with saliva and I either throw the beads in the dishwasher or cut the ribbon, run the beads through the dishwasher and replace the ribbon.

      Mouse bites hers hard enough to crush them, so I’m happy to have a fairly easy and cheap solution…K

  3. says

    I was this child. I chewed pencils, my hair, pens..whatever. As an adult I still would chew on things like the antenna on a cordless phone. If not chewing on something, I was tapping my teeth in rhythmic fashion all the time. Still do that. K

    The funny thing is I never had food texture issues although several of my kids do.

  4. Leslie Brooks says

    I just had an “A HA” moment reading this. My 5 1/2 year old daughter does the same thing. She nursed for 2 solid years and had a hard time even giving that up, but wouldn’t take the pacifier or drink from a bottle. She chews her hair and clothes mostly, but constantly, and is sensitive to the way things feel and smell. I figured it was a sensory issue and I will discuss it with the dr. at her checkup this year. I can’t wait to get her a beaded necklace. Thank you for this post!!!

  5. says

    Mouse is also very sensitive to smell. She can pick out what I’m cooking by the smell in the other room (the difference between pasta and white rice for example). Noise is her biggest trigger and the thing that is most likely to start her chewing. I’ve been working on identifying the types of sounds as well as the noise levels that she finds stressful and suspect that the noise level in Target (where her behavior is often quite difficult and everything goes in the mouth) is a big cause of her difficulty there…K

  6. Susan says

    This is very interesting. I thought my boys were just weird. Both gave up their pacifiers easily, never sucked their thumbs, but both chew on everything. In fact, I kid that my youngest (3) is like a dog, because he will even chew on the window sills… My oldest chews on his shirts, buttons, pens, etc. I wonder what I could give my boys, since neither would wear a necklace.

  7. Deanna says

    This makes sense. My 5-1/2 yr old boy gave up the pacifier at 3 months old, never sucked his thumb, but has forever had a finger or hand in his mouth chewing. He’s getting better about not licking or chewing things in public places, but those fingers…they.are.always.in.his.mouth. His fingernails are almost non-existent. I’ve wondered if giving him a chewing object would help the issue or just promote him chewing on things. He finally lost his front teeth and I thought that might resolve the issue (no teeth = no chewing, right? wrong.) – he bites his nails with his back teeth now (how??). I may look into an alternative chewing object for him.

    • says

      I wondered that about Mouse too, but I’ve found that since she has permission to chew when something stresses her she’s actually calmer and chewing less. Sort of like the way a child who is always moving will be able to have calm quiet times if they receive enough energetic movement time…K

  8. louisa guest says

    As a teacher, I suggest to parents of children aged 8+ that they provide sugar free gum for the kids in class – cant imagine a 11 yr old boy wanting to wear a teething ring necklace :0 Lovely article – have emailed it to all my staff

    • Cherie Trisler says

      Louisa, do you have a way to deal with them playing with the gum? I let my boys have gum whenever they want it, but often then I find myself telling them to keep it in their mouths rather than just to keep their hands out of their mouths.

  9. Lisa s says

    Thank you so much for this article. You gave me my ah-ha moment. My 9 year old even ate chunks out of the back of my car’s headrest. I just could not imagine why. This makes so much sense. He is also so sensitive to smell and taste. My middle girl chews some too. I’ll have to observe her more too to see if she could benefit as well.

  10. Carrie says

    My 10yo DD doesn’t just gnaw on the pencil. She gnaws the whole aluminum part off and chews on that, then goes to work on the wood. She never swallows anything, but eeewwww that makes the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. She’s no longer allowed pencils with erasers. She has to use a block eraser.

    And then today I found her chewing on THAT.

    I often say, “You are not a goat.” She’s learned that it’s code for “get that out of your mouth, pronto.”

    Gum turns into a toy to string between fingers.

    I have, however, been using a quickie recipe from Pinterest for breakfast. Spray a tortilla with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon/sugar, spread with vanilla yogurt, and sprinkle with berries. Roll up like a burrito and freeze. I give those to her completely frozen and she just gnaws away while she does her work.

  11. Sarah Hammond says

    This is a great idea! My 4 year old daughter has the same issues. She was diagnosed with autism at age 3. We work with an OT therapist who recommended getting her a chewing necklace. I like this idea better, the ones I found online looked like they would stand out, where this is just a cute idea! Thanks!

  12. c says

    I am just researching about this again and I really think its a terrible terrible habit! My older sister chews her coat collars, sweater toggles and basically everything from pens to tv remotes, her ds stylus. My mom does it too and I cant understand why they all think its alright to suck a pen and leave it all wet at the ends? I mean my sister could be chewing it while doing her homework, leave it at the table after and then my mom comes right along and chews on it too while thinking of a grocery list!

    Like do you not see that you are putting a pen that has been chewed on just minutes ago? I really cant stand it and I think true, some cases it maybe a sensory thing but I think its habits that they just wont or could be bothered to stop!

    I am researching on this again as I am looking at my winter coat that I am to wear this year! (hand me down) And just thinking why do people do this? The collars are a little frayed and the zipper pull has my sister teethmarks. Even the toggles at the bottom are not spared and have been chewed on. Like, I really don’t know how one would deliberately yank a toggle at the bottom of your winter coat to your mouth! Wont you look funny?

    And she is already 14 years old. I can still have this mental picture how this coat was worn last year by my sister and the collar was always soaking wet and in her mouth. Everytime i look at her sitting in the car, the coat collar was in her mouth or when zipped up to her mouth, she’s chewing on the zipper pull and licking it! I know its been washed but i just still seem to smell that stinky collar! And I have to wear this coat this year! :(

    Arrgh. It is really just unsanitary habits! True some have an disorder issue, but there are also many out there that just have habits that they are not concerned to break. My sister and mom seem normal people but they are just not doing anything about it!

    And they have no care of others too when you chew the pens and dont even look to see if its yours? I have thrown out countless of good pens because my sister comes by to my pencil case, uses my pens and leave her teethmarks on them ! Arrrgh!

  13. Rhoda says

    This summer while visiting a chiropratic doctor specializing in neurology, he suggested to have me place a drop of an essential oil, like sweet orange, clove, etc, under my DD nostrils to help stimulate the brain instead of the fingers in the mouth. Amazingly it works wonders. Now whenever she gets mouthy, we get out the sweet orange EO. She is also smells sensitive, but loves this remedy.

  14. Denise says

    the Cool Chews give us peace of mind because we know they are clean! Here’s what we’ve found helpful for our 5 year old son (has SPD). Really durable and not girly!! http://funandfunction.com/cool-chews-race-car.html

    He put things in his mouth and chomps away without the concern of germs–really dirty things, like from off the floor, under the bed, etc,. We think that’s why he was sick so often in the last couple of years. Since using these, he hardly ever gets sick now!! I really think that’s what was happening with him. So we are very thankful for them. We just wash it really well after he’s used it and hang it on his doorknob when he doesn’t need it or put it on his shelf!

  15. Lelah says

    My son is a big–BIG–chewer. He doesn’t like the pencil toppers, or the (boy style) chewlrey, or basically anything that is a harder plastic. We get by with gum (it’s in his IEP so if he has a teacher who doent like it, too bad. I send a letter as required by due process and it’s quickly allowed). He prefers soft items. Arm bands work well (saves shirts). One of the sensory stores sell the type for chewing–Fun and Function, maybe?

  16. Chandy says

    I stumbled across this article and it has helped me understand my daughter so much! She has literally chewed holes in all of her clothing and constantly has her hair in her mouth. I work 6 hours per day and I think the separation has been difficult for her. I am looking forward to finding some things for her that are okay to chew! Thank you for all of the suggestions!

  17. Bobbie says

    My little one is the same way. He was diagnosed at a year and a half with a genetic deletion with a lot of sensory issues similar to Autism. F suffers from bruxism(?) and grinds his teeth to the point my head pounds. Bless his heart but he cannot help it. He is texture sensitive and has had difficulty coping in situations where there is “chaos”. We go through the cheap Wal-Mart pacifiers at least 10 a month as I have found nothing else he likes. F has P’s&Q’s, chewy tubes… these are only satisfying for a time. Though I believe some of the reason he doesn’t use these as much is because they have been used in his feeding therapy sessions. F chews on his shirt collars, blankets, solid drink straws, grinds his teeth when stressed or tired. I have been concerned enough not to get him any necklaces or chewels because he is just so destructive. I have become almost desperate enough to try a doggie chew toy, rubber horse bit or *ahem* “adult oral toys”… so far the cheap pacifiers and sensory redirection is the only things that help. Oh and chocolate. He will stop “wigging out” for a chocolate.

  18. Akwo says

    I am a Learning Support Assistant and I’ve got this 9 year old boy who has developed the habit of chewing things. He chews class pencils, rubbers, markers, pens, rulers, headphones as well as his shirt. I have noticed this for the past 4 weeks. I’m trying to figure out what the best solution to this could be but I’m kind of stuck right now. Can someone help me? Thanks

  19. bludab says

    Oh my gosh this is me! I was a preemie way before sensory therapy became the norm – and I chewed everything – though my favorite was Barbie shoes. My mom lived in fear that I’d choke to death – I almost did once , chewing on one of those giant plastic gem stone rings. I recently realized that the reason I snack while I write/study/concentrate is not because I like to eat, but because I like to chew – it literally helps me think better. I’ve started buying a ton of sugar free gum – it’s not quite the same level of satisfaction of plastic, but it’s close especially after the flavor wears off. I also used to like the wax from the orthodontist – tasted gross but it was the perfect texture. I feel so much less weird now!

  20. NicksMom says

    the chew buddies are a good idea, i definitely don’t want to stick a pacifier in my 7 year old’s mouth.

  21. nikki lake says

    great article. i’m 36 and just learned i’m aspie. This explains so much about my chewing. I still chew. I used break/ruin pencils and many others things. And gum is not necessarily a good idea. I will run through a whole pack within an hour and then it will be gone. Gum is annoying. And for kids they end up leaving it everywhere and it’s a mess. I love the bead idea and I’m sure there are some necklaces that can be handmade to fit all age groups and fashion/styles and female/male. What a fantastic idea. My pens/pencils will be so happy ;) I already have a great idea for a necklace for me. Nikki

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