You haven’t really been initiated into parenthood until you’ve visited the ER to have a foreign object dislodged from your child’s nose or ear with a giant pair of tweezers. Similarly, how many times have you told your child to take something out of their mouth that doesn’t belong there?
You may want to scream and yell at your child in these moments of horror, but we’ve consulted with the experts, who say this behavior is actually quite common.
They are engaging in playful exploration
Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center, says when children exhibit this type of behavior, they are experimenting with the world around them and learning what happens when they try something.
Additionally, like most things young kids do, he attributes these actions to curiosity. But specifically, curiosity based on some previous information.
“Kids don’t wake up one morning and ask what they can explore on their body,” says Bubrick. “It is more based on previous sensory information that they got inadvertently from some other situation. Then there’s a curiosity about it because something felt good, and they think this new behavior can feel good, too.”
For example, he notes that kids who put things in their nose have likely picked their nose and have discovered a warm, wet place in their body they never knew about.
“Kids may realize they like the feeling of taking something out of their nose and then wonder how it feels if they put something in there.”
The same is true for kids who may put things in their belly button.
“We’re always asking kids where their belly button is and tickling their bellies, so they may think it’s OK to put things in there because parents draw a lot of attention to it,” he says.
Children are seeking sensory stimulation
Bubrick believes that children who repetitively put items in their nose or mouth may be seeking sensory stimulation. Along the lines of pulling things out of the ear, like wax, kids may find that it feels good to put something in, too.
“There’s a sensory component to this behavior,” says Bubrick. “It somehow feels good because other parts of their bodies haven’t developed the same way from a sensory point of view, so they’re getting whatever sensory stimulation they can find.”
This behavior can be self-soothing
In some cases, Bubrick says, kids may be trying to self soothe when they put things like blankets in their mouth, just like they suck their thumb for comfort.
“Any number of things — no matter how unusual they seem — could be soothing to others,” he says.
How to prevent this behavior
Kids who put things in their nose can develop sinus infections. These behaviors also put kids at risk for topical infections, various forms of irritation and choking. While most kids will often stop putting things in their nose or mouth if a doctor needs to intervene, there are simple ways to prevent these incidents before they escalate.
With the holidays coming up and small items like batteries and lights within reach of little hands, Bubrick suggests putting locks on drawers and keeping potentially dangerous items out of sight from kids.
“When your child learns to walk, you have to baby proof your house,” Bubrick says. “Parents also need to child proof in a whole other way. Anything that can go somewhere it doesn’t belong should go out of reach.”
Bubrick also says that parents should not laugh when kids put things in their nose, mouth or belly button, because that may push children to continue the behavior.
“Parents need to have a neutral reaction, because kids could start to see it as a game,” he says. “When this stuff happens, parents should use the opportunity to talk to their kids about safe and unsafe things to put in their bodies.”
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