It’s an all too common occurrence: your child chewing on his sleeve, collar, or coat until it’s soggy and stretched out or until the buttons fall off. No matter how many times you tell him to stop, his shirt ends up right back in his mouth. Why is he doing this? In fact, he’s looking for proprioceptive feedback: sensory information from the skin, muscles, and joints that activates or calms the central nervous system. Some children simply need additional stimulation in order to concentrate more and to feel regulated. Other children who are anxious and overwhelmed need a way to calm down. Whether they are self-soothing or looking for extra feedback through oral motor stimulation, there are ways to redirect their chewing behavior away from clothing.
Try chewelry! – chewy jewelry, specially made necklaces, pendants, rings, and bracelets allow for discreet fidgeting and won’t get easily lost when attached to your child. Fidgets other than jewelry are also available, such as rubber pencil toppers, squeezable animals, and stress balls.
Heavy work – for some kids, sitting still for long periods of time can build tension. At home, test to see if more physical movement opportunities throughout the day decrease shirt chewing behavior. Try adding extra playground time or gross motor activities periodically throughout their day. For example, include jumping on a trampoline, riding a bicycle, swimming, climbing a rock wall, playing on a jungle gym, jumping from a height onto cushions, climbing a tree, pushing a wheelbarrow, or doing jumping jacks.
Chewing gum – a good, subtle distraction if your child is old enough not to swallow it.
Healthy food – satisfy the need for oral proprioceptive feedback by incorporating crunchy or chewy food at meals or during snack time. Examples include crunchy granola bars, carrots, celery, apples, pretzel rods, and ice cubes. Sucking on a straw can also provide necessary oral motor feedback.
Vibrating toothbrush – if they are sensory seekers and enjoy the vibrations of an electric toothbrush, let them brush multiple times a day to see if that reduces chewing behavior. Although chewing behavior is often distressing for parents, it is important to avoid nagging, yelling, or disciplining your child. In fact, increased attention often increases the behavior in some children. Instead, try saying “clothes stay out of your mouth” rather than “stop chewing on that.” For more information, talk with your child’s Sensory Integration Therapist or Occupational Therapist. Experts will have further insight and suggestions for redirecting or putting an end to this behavior.