Why does my child chew on things?
There are a number of reasons why children chew. And no, it’s not because they like the taste of their fingers or shirt collars!
The chewing tendency is primarily driven by differences in sensory processing. These differences are common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They are also seen in children who have sensory processing disorder (SPD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Interestingly, children who have not been diagnosed with any of these conditions may still have slight sensory processing differences which drive their need to chew on things.
Sensory processing is a way to describe how the brain processes incoming information from all of the senses. Information may be in the form of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and also body position and movement. The body position sense, called proprioception, is often processed differently in children who are bouncy and seek movement wherever they go. (Click here to read our article about proprioception).
Children who chew tend to be sensory-seekers. The act of chewing provides the type of sensory input that they are looking for – proprioceptive. Most commonly, children receive proprioceptive input through physical, whole-body muscle activation, or “heavy work” activities. However, they can also give themselves proprioceptive input through feeling pressure and force in the jaw. When chewing foods that are resistive, such as crunchy almond or a chewy piece of candy, the brain receives proprioceptive input, in the specific form of oral-motor input. For many children, this helps them to feel calm, organized and settled.
Some children chew or suck on their shirt collar while listening to their teacher speaking. Often this is a way to get proprioceptive input without getting in trouble for jumping up out of the seat, which itself is another type of proprioceptive sensory-seeking.
Other children chew on their pencil while trying to think of an idea for a writing assignment. This chewing motion supports them in tuning out distracting noises, such as the chattering of their classmates around them.
Some children may chew on things so much that the chewing itself becomes a distraction!
What can I do about it?
When children are chewing, they are seeking out proprioceptive input for a reason. Often then, the best solution is to provide the child with the stimulation they need! There are ways to provide proprioceptive input, including oral-motor input which is appropriate and does not always end in wet collars or destroyed pencils.
A great solution is a sensory diet that is rich in the proprioceptive input through “heavy work” activities, as well as oral-motor input. Activities may include:
- drinking a thick smoothie through a straw in the morning
- brushing the teeth with a vibrating toothbrush
- sucking on a homemade fruity ice block on the walk home from school
- 10 minutes of bouncing on a trampoline upon arrival at home and before starting homework.
At school, proprioceptive input can be provided through crunchy and chewy snacks sent for morning tea and lunch – great choices include nuts, carrot, popcorn, apple, and dried fruit.
Even with this input, some children continue to chew in the classroom. These children may benefit from “chewelry” or chewable jewellery. It’s designed for children to get their chewing input from an item that won’t fall apart and hasn’t been on the floor. Chewelry comes in many shapes, sizes, and designs – from trucks to Minecraft to princesses – to meet kids’ diverse preferences. Chewable pencil toppers may also be used and are designed to be chewed without falling apart.
Your child’s occupational therapist can design a sensory diet to best meet your child’s specific sensory processing needs. Your therapist can also teach your child strategies to help meet their sensory-seeking needs. And with that support system in place, your child will be able to stay focussed and learn!
Try to apply some of these strategies yourself but if you decide you would like some help to create a sensory diet for your child or if you would like to find out more about what can be done to help feel free to make contact.
To see what times one of our OT’s would be available to talk to you can use our Startup Session booking tool below. Or if you would prefer to talk to us on the phone you can call us on (07) 5578 2000.
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