Why do some children continue to have an almost obsessive need to put things into their mouths often past the age where it is deemed appropriate? An oral fixation in children is common at a young age, but past a certain age can be a sign of something more. (Read more about general developmental milestones here).
We refer to these kids as ones who have an oral fixation. All babies go through an actual oral stage in development which is quite appropriate – they suck on, bite, chew on and sometimes even swallow things like toys, clothing, paper, pretty much anything they find that they can get into their mouths. For babies, sucking invokes pleasure and can calm a hungry baby or comfort a teething baby. Mouthing and chewing for babies is also a way for them to explore their environment. However, there are some children who continue to engage in these oral type behaviors long after infancy. (Learn more about the difference between oral mouthing and oral fixation)
These children seem to have a need or intense craving to put things into their mouths. They may bite their nails, chew their skin on their hands, suck their fingers or thumb, bite their clothing, chew on crayons, or suck on or chew toys and other non-food items. They may also be children who have poor oral motor skills, may drool excessively, may have poor eating skills (under weight or over weight) and poor oral hygiene habits. They may also be more socially immature and needy, and have more difficulty with separation from their parents.
If this sounds like your child, it is advised that you seek an evaluation from an occupational therapist or speech therapist who can assess the reasons behind the need for this oral behavior. Some children have an oral fixation due to being weaned too early or too late in the infant oral stage (with bottle, breast or pacifier). Other children may be under sensitive (hyposensitive) in their mouths and have a need or craving for more oral stimulation that they get by sucking or chewing on non-food items. These children when eating may prefer intense flavors like hot, salty or sour. Some children engage in these oral behaviors due to a diagnosis or developmental delay. For many children this is a sensory need and by developing a sensory plan which includes ways to appropriately satisfy their oral cravings, while teaching coping strategies and substitutions for inappropriate oral behaviors we can gradually get these kids on a successful path to reducing their oral fixations.
Therapists may use a combination of therapy tools to help your child overcomes his or her oral fixation. Some examples can be seen at the links below: