Hi Dr. Rene,
My six-year-old son has a habit of chewing on his shirts. He frequently comes home from school with his collar and sleeves in tatters. I really think he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. When he does it at home, I can gently remind him to stop, and he does. But when he’s at school, I’m not there to remind him not to do it. Any thoughts on getting him past this?
Hannah, mom of two
There are a variety of reasons cited for children mindlessly chewing on clothes. Some suggest chewing may assist children with focus and attention. It is along the lines of giving kids a koosh-ball for focused fidgeting in the classroom. Others suggest some children just need more physical movement and sitting still causes built up tension. These may be sensory-seeking children with a need for more oral stimulation or physical stimulation overall. For others it may be a self-soothing activity like thumb sucking or hair twirling. The chewing may help the child calm from negative emotions. However it started, for some children it just becomes a habit.
There are just as many suggestions on how to curb the unwanted behavior. Following the koosh-ball idea, there are chew bracelets, necklaces (such as phitens or chewelery), chewy tubes, grabbers, chewing pencil toppers, teething balls, coffee stirers and small nuk brushes. Several parents on Listserves suggest a wash cloth then strips of a wash cloth for children to chew as needed. Children may enjoy brushing their teeth often with a soft toothbrush. I tend to prefer the replacement activities such as counting the back of their teeth with their tongue or chewing healthy, crunchy snacks (think apple slices and carrots often) or sugar-free chewing gum.
It may be worthwhile to test if more physical movement opportunities and movement breaks during the day help. This might include taking your child to the playground in the morning, providing lots of gross motor activities indoors and out and being sure there are recess and P.E. breaks at school. Plan for your child to have challenges around carrying, pushing, pulling, climbing and swimming.
It may also be helpful to teach your child other ways to self soothe. This may be deep breathing, slow or backward counting, visualization, meditation or mantras. You might provide a lovey to sleep with and cuddle. If the chewing seems to be ramping up, it is worth checking for any stress your child may be feeling.
When you do see the behavior be sure you are gently saying, “take that out of your mouth,” or, “clothes stay out of your mouth,” rather than, “stop chewing on that,” or, “don’t chew.” Ask his teacher to do the same everytime. I would pair this with one of the other options like a chew bracelet or gum. Each time redirect him to what he can chew. Avoid nagging, yelling or disciplining the chewing. This increased negative attention often backfires. The long term idea is most children outgrow this behavior on their own but it can take a while.
If it doesn’t lessen soon and considerably with your consistent efforts, you might take a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist who is familiar with chewing for ideas beyond mine.
A good related article:
Sincerely, Dr. Rene