Why Do Kids Chew on Things?

From nails to shirt cuffs, it's common for kids to gnaw on a variety of things. So why do kids chew on things, and how can parents help them curb the habit?

Illustration by Brent Mosser

Do you constantly find yourself telling your kids to stop biting their shirt sleeves or chewing on their pencils or even their hair? If so, you aren’t alone. Many kids will chew everything in sight, even without realizing they are doing it.

So what is it about chewing? Why do kids do it past the age where it is deemed socially acceptable, and is it something parents should be concerned about?

Why kids chew

While chewing behaviors are considered normal and developmentally appropriate in infants and toddlers, when it comes to school-aged kids, it can raise a red flag for parents that something is amiss. Some of reasons for chewing may include anxiety, stress, sensory issues, boredom and general habit.

“The brain is wired such that the mouth is an important place for interacting with the world, and chewing is a form of that,” says Dr. Peter J. Smith, chair of the American Association of Pediatrics Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and associate professor in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at The University of Chicago.

“Much like foodies turn to foods with different textures in adulthood, kids often experiment by putting different things in their mouth.”

Lindsey Biel, occupational therapist and co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, says like anything kids do, chewing is a matter of degree.

“It’s within the range of so-called normal to chew on a shirt cuff or nibble on cuticles or nails now and then but when it is more extreme — clothing is wet, cuticles are ripped and bloody — it does indeed become a concern.”

The implications of chewing

From an overall health perspective, most pediatricians agree that chewing isn’t something parents should be overly concerned about. However, for younger kids, Dr. Banu Kumar, chief of pediatric hospital medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, worries about choking hazards and increased risk of sickness due to germs.

“We always worry about choking hazards when kids are chewing on tiny objects,” Kumar says. “These objects are dirty and not sterile, so the health risk of getting germs inside their bodies increase.”

Additionally, if chewing continues beyond when the permanent teeth begin to come in, dental problems may also occur, says Dr. Mina Chung, pediatric dentist at Chicagoland’s Grove Dental Associates.

“From a dental perspective, chewing habits can contribute to having negative effects on teeth and jaw formation,” Chung says. “Early identification and diagnosis of such behaviors can allow for therapeutic intervention and prevention.”

What not to do

Veronica Ursetto, owner and therapist at Integrative Perspectives Counseling and Consulting PC in Chicago, says it is important for parents to work with their child’s pediatrician about why their child is exhibiting the chewing behavior rather than labeling the child as a “chewer” and the behavior as negative.

“When we shame and punish our children, we send the message that the child is bad,” Ursetto says. “In reality, the likelihood is shaming a child will either exacerbate the behavior or the behavior will manifest into other negative behavior.”

Helping kids who chew

Parents looking for other ways to regulate chewing behavior can offer their children age-appropriate alternatives that are not choking hazards, such as crunchy foods or drinking through a straw. Additionally, there are a wealth of safe toys made for children who like to chew.

“No matter why kids do it, chewing is a self-regulatory behavior that can be very calming to kids,” Kumar says. “It is important to meet with your child’s pediatrician to get to the root of the cause, and from there, figure out how to best address it.”

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