A question that comes up often when I'm working with educators is the challenge of supporting children who place objects in their mouth such as bark chips, small loose play parts, or beads.
I understand this is a big concern, particularly in an early childhood setting when you have a number of children to supervise, choking can be a very real and valid fear! A really common response to this behaviour that I hear often is 'Take that out your mouth!'. Although this might work in the moment, falling back on this tactic (that we probably heard when we were kids) means that the child will just keep doing the behaviour over and over again until they learn what they could be doing instead. A worry for this is that the child will actually learn 'if I put things in my mouth and they see, they take it away. So I'll just put things in my mouth in secret so they don't notice.'
When children are mouthing items it's important to figure out why they are doing this in order to unpack and change the behaviour.
Some common reasons may be: the child is hungry, sensory seeking (possibly providing pressure to relieve teething pain), or using the behaviour as a strategy to self soothe.
How can I tell if my child is hungry?
They might be grabbing relatively food-like items and attempting to actually eat them rather than just feel them with their mouths. This is likely to happen with items like dirt, things found behind the couch that might've once been a food item... and you might realise it's been a while since they last ate.
If your child is hungry: feed them! If you see them putting something in their mouth to try and eat, you could say 'you've put (x) in your mouth, I wonder if you're hungry. You could come ask me for some food, show me the fridge, or grab an apple from the fruitbowl'. Replace whatever is in their mouth with a snack and see if they are into the idea of eating that instead.
How can I tell if my child is sensory seeking?
Your child might be popping any kind of object in their mouth if they are sensory seeking – and this is completely normal! When children aren't able to yet use their hands to the best of their ability, they will use their mouths instead to explore. This can be fine at times, but the challenge is when they are exploring objects that might be a choking hazard, particularly smooth round pebbles or similar. If your child is still displaying a lot of mouthing sensory seeking behaviour past 3 years old, it could be worth checking in with an Occupational Therapist to get a better idea of their sensory needs.
If your child is sensory seeking, you could say 'I bet that feels nice in your mouth. I'm worried you might choke, so you can pop this in your mouth instead to explore' and give them a more suitable toy e.g. a teething necklace or item, or if the child is older a 'chewy tube' on a necklace could help. If they're seeking cold objects you could try a teaspoon you keep in the freezer!
How can I tell if my child is self soothing?
Your child might be sucking objects rather than just popping them in their mouth. This sucking is a reflex that instinctively has a soothing effect – it's actually pretty cool that our bodies have this inbuilt function right? It works well to allow children to learn how to feed in their early months. If the sucking behaviour continues well past infancy, however, this could indicate that the child could be needing some extra support with regulating their emotions, and this is your cue in to being able to provide that support.
If your child is trying to self soothe by mouthing objects, you could support them by providing another means of comfort – for example, 'I wonder if you're feeling a bit upset right now, would you like a cuddle or to do some big breaths with me?'. If you take away their pacifier or similar, expect them to be understandably upset about this (!) and support them by hearing their feelings. You could do this by acknowledging e.g. 'You're feeling so upset because I took your dummy away. It's ok to feel upset, everyone feels upset sometimes. Let's think about what we could do to help (offer ideas here, read a book? cuddle on the couch? do some big breaths?)'. Being upset is ok!
I'll go into the idea of the full spectrum of emotions being ok in upcoming posts.. but for now, I hope the above adds to your parenting fallback toolkit of ideas when your chid is mouthing objects.
Got any questions? Please feel free to get in touch!