Why some children chew and what to do about it - a sensory integrative perspective.
We are all born with a specific sensory system and we live with this system our whole life. Some of us are born with typical tolerances for what we hear, see, smell, taste, and touch/feel and how we perceive movement. Some of us need a lot of sensory input to register these stimuli fully and some of us do not filter this information well enough and are sensitive to our sensory world and some just adapt easily without any effort or conscious awareness.
Like most answers in life there are many explanations for this question. As an occupational therapist I will look at it from a sensory integrative perspective.
Firstly, our sensory seeking children often chew on their clothes, pencils, cardboard pieces, etc. The biting, sucking and tongue movements all add extra feedback to the sensory system for them to access the “just right” level of activity. This is the level where they are calm and alert, able to concentrate, learn and adapt to changes easily and without any effort. These children often have a high tolerance for sensory input. Sensory seekers who crave movement might also like rough and tumble, enjoy physically intense activities e.g. high slides, riding into walls with their bikes, swinging higher or faster. Sitting quietly in a car or in the classroom make their little body engines run low and chewing on their clothes or toys can be an effective strategy to provide their sensory systems with more feedback in order to stay alert. More passive seekers who use music, visual input and general activity to stay focused and could also start chewing in low input environments.
Secondly, there are sensory sensitive children who are easily over-stimulated by their sensory environment. They tend to be your more anxious children who shows signs of stress in high sensory input environments e.g. classrooms, playground, shopping centres, unfamiliar situations etc. These children often have difficulty regulating their sensory systems; therefore their bodies can easily go into a stress – fight, flight or freeze - mode. A stress response can present as one or a few of these behaviours: aggression, “I won’t, no”, distractibility, clowning, escape behaviour, whining, tearfulness, “I can’t’ and/or separation issues. With these behaviours it is obvious that they are out of their depth and feel stressed - they are not deliberately testing boundaries! These children also tend to chew or bite their clothing or nearby item when they feel overwhelmed and need to calm their central nervous system.
Therefore sensory seekers use chewing on their clothes to activate their systems and sensory sensitive children chew in order to calm their sensory systems.
You might wonder why biting and chewing is their choice of strategy. Our mouth muscles and jaw joint work against resistance whilst sucking or chewing. Just bite down hard on your teeth as you are reading this and feel the feedback in your jaw joint. This kind of input is called proprioceptive feedback (feedback from your skin muscles and joints) and has the magical power of either activating or calming the central nervous system. Think of a heavy work training session in the gym – it makes you feel equally better when you need activation and if you need to counteract stress or anxiety.
Clothes and toys or writing utensils are often present so it is an easy, accessible way of feeding the sensory system in order to calm or activate.
So what do we do about it?
This kind of behaviour is seldom a stand-alone sign; there are often other signs to form a cluster e.g. sensitivity to touch or sound or the need for excessive intense movement; a general inability to deal with groups of people or unconscious rough play, hurting friends etc. If you see a few of these signs in your child’s behaviour, please contact an occupational therapist specialising in sensory integration therapy. They will assist you in establishing the root-cause of the behaviour and also guide you regarding therapy and a home programme to find more acceptable ways of getting proprioceptive feedback through the mouth and body.
You do however find children and adults who chew as a subtle integrated sensory strategy in specific circumstances. They will for instance take an apple to school on stressful days or find a rubber band to chew on during studying. This strategy is appropriate for the task. It is subtle and only present during visibly stressful periods. These people often have well developed sensory systems and instinctively use this strategy effectively.
A general guideline for assisting a child to gain the input needed, in a socially acceptable manner, is to provide heavy work on a regular basis through the day. Heavy work means against resistance and gravity – wheelbarrow walking, carrying, pushing, shovelling, hanging, etc. In other words, feed the sensory system what it needs, until it is saturated and hopefully your child will move beyond the need for chewing.
These children can often not provide their own bodies with the intensity of feedback that they need in order to move through the seeking phase. We can assist them by adding the following types of activities over and above what they are already doing. Deciding what your unique child needs often requires the help of a therapist.
- Ideas related to the jaw area:
- Older kids can be given chewing gum (4 pieces), and preferably sugar-free, on their way to school, during test or exam times, on their way back home, during homework time.
- Other food snacks with a high against resistance value would be carrot sticks, apple chunks, biltong pieces etc.
- You can use a chewable tubing strip at the end of a pencil for school-going children.
- For pre-schoolers you can make a necklace or bracelet with tubing i.e. the see-through kind used in fish tanks on a ribbon to chew on as they need it. (Please note that these items are often not latex free. If your child is allergic to latex ignore these options)
- For many children a vibration toothbrush is a great input. If they want to brush their teeth four times a day to get the feedback they need, let them.
- Physical activities not related to the jaw area can also be added. We refer to this kind of activity as heavy work patterns.
- Carrying shopping bags from the car to the house
- Jumping on a trampoline/jumping castle
- Using a spade to fill a play wheelbarrow or cart with sand, pushing the full wheelbarrow with sand in and delivering it to another location
- Riding a bicycle
- Climbing a climbing wall
- Jumping from a little height into cushions
- Jungle gyms
- Climbing a tree
Understanding the sensory need behind the behaviour, helps us to feed a child’s sensory need, until that system is mature enough and had time to develop a more subtle strategy.
As we all live with our unique sensory systems, we can easily understand that children have more outspoken strategies and adults have more subtle ones. As parents we can assist our children with very outspoken strategies to better integrate their sensory systems.
Chewing on clothing and objects is often just one of the little quirks presented by children with sensory integrative difficulties and should be looked at in terms of the broader picture.