There’s no such thing as the five-second rule when you’re just starting out in life. It doesn’t matter where it’s come from – if you’re a baby or toddler, any object you find is going straight in your mouth. Baby mouthing is almost de rigeur at that age.
Most parents have, at some stage, experienced the horror of seeing their child about to eat or chew something they shouldn’t – it could be dirt from the garden, a shoe, a dog biscuit or even the dog’s tail.
Why do they do it? And is it something we should discourage or try and stop?
It might go against every hygienic instinct we have, but for our children, putting everything in their mouths is normal. It’s how they discover their world, and it also helps with bite coordination.
“Infants explore everything with their mouths,” explains Dr Carla Fry, a registered psychologist from Vancouver, Canada. “Sucking and chewing on things is how they learn about their environment.”
It’s also part of the teething process – it hurts as those tiny pearly-whites make their way through the gums, and biting down on something can bring relief. This can continue for a couple of years – teething can be as irritating to a toddler as to a small baby.
Trying to stop baby mouthing
You’re unlikely to succeed in stopping your child entirely, and your main concern will be to ensure they don’t suck or chew anything harmful – such as an object with sharp edges or a poisonous plant.
The important thing is to be vigilant, and you will also want to be sure that there’s no underlying problem such as sore gums. Assuming there is nothing wrong, try these strategies to encourage them to change their behaviour:
- Gently remove the item being mouthed and say kindly: “No, we don’t chew the TV remote/eat cat food/suck the cushions (or whatever is happening).”
- Don’t show disapproval, as this will upset your child. Remember small children won’t learn a ‘rule’ straight away so you will have to repeat this consistently over time; it’s about educating, not admonishing.
- Play with your child as a distraction, showing through example how to treat household objects or things that get dropped on the floor. It might even be that your child is using their behaviour to get your attention and that’s what they really want.
- Have alternatives to hand, such as a favourite snack, to divert your child’s attention when necessary – especially if you’re out and about.
- If your child is especially determined, you could identify a specific item such as a beloved soft toy or blanket that it’s ok for them to put in their mouths. Use it to replace things you don’t want them to have. They will soon learn that this special object is ok, and it could give you some peace of mind until they outgrow this phase of their development.
Signs the problem is more serious
Most children will grow out of this habit on their own, but if yours is still mouthing everything at three years old, then it could be a sign of oral fixation. Clues include clothing soaked through with saliva after just a few hours (especially sleeves), constant hair-sucking often combined with obsessive nail-biting, or chewing through pens and pencils at an alarmingly fast rate.
It’s not uncommon and is generally a sign the child simply hasn’t moved on to other forms of sensory learning. It can also be self-soothing behaviour in children who are shy, anxious and lacking in confidence.
It can, however, also occur when a child has developmental issues, so Dr Fry recommends parents consult a child health professional or paediatrician if they have concerns.
“Reprimanding only increases anxiety or leads to power struggles,” she says. “You just need to watch the behaviour, think about what could be causing it and then work on it together.”