Why Some Kids Eat Things They Shouldn’t

From boogers to pen caps, here's why some kids can't seem to keep strange and stomach-turning things out of their mouths.

It doesn’t matter how many times we tell our kids to take something out of their mouth, they like to eat things that make us cringe! Boogers, nails, pen caps, even scabs. You name it, and they’ve probably tried it (and even liked it).

While this type of behavior may worry some parents, experts say not to fret — there are several reasons that kids eat what adults might consider to be strange things.

Part of our nature

Arthur Lavin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, says that from the moment babies are born, they are born with a need to want to use their mouth.

“While babies vary in their intensity of that drive, they all experience pleasure through things that are placed in the mouth,” says Lavin.

He says you can see these urges at play right after birth and in the first months of infancy when our babies get so very happy when they have a nipple or pacifier in their mouth. This drive to experience great pleasure from sucking changes at 4 months of age when the chewing instinct kicks in. The passion to chew continues throughout life, which is why we see kids eating funny things.

“Kids learn from an early age to experience pleasure through the mouth,” says Lavin. “The mouth plays a role in how we express our emotions and thinking throughout life.”

Self-soothing and self-grooming behaviors

Many times, when things feel stressful, kids engage in self-soothing behavior — a repetitive behavior that meets their emotional needs. This includes everything from hair twirling and scab picking to knuckle cracking and putting things in their mouth. These behaviors are often not an indicator of a serious problem, but a child’s odd way of calming themselves.

Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorders Center, says that when kids self-soothe, their behavior can both feel good and cause a slight sensation of pleasure.

“Whether it is the feeling of a booger being pulled out of a nose or a piece of hair being pulled out, kids will experience an endorphin rush,” he says. “This helps kids release tension and it acts as a calming influence.”

Bubrick notes that some of this behavior starts from a desire to maintain body appearance by eliminating imperfections. An example of this is found in kids who bite their nails.

Kids may bite their nails to feel like they are grooming themselves — by helping to make their nails more symmetrical,” he says. “Out of habit, they might chew on the nails, or even swallow them to prevent others from discovering the behavior.”

When to seek help

While most of this behavior is nothing to worry about, occasionally these habits can be a sign of something bigger.

Parents should seek help if their kids repeatedly ingest hair or nails, as it can cause illness and a GI disruption. Additionally, parents should look out for signs of pica, an eating disorder in which a person eats things not usually considered food. Kids with pica go beyond putting things in their mouth because they are curious. Instead, they eat things like clay, rocks, chalk, coins and paint chips that can lead to health problems.

Parents who notice any of these signs should start with a visit to their child’s pediatrician.

“As with anything, a positive, inquisitive approach will get parents much further than a negative, corrective position. Be open minded about what’s going on with your child and always follow your gut — even if it means visiting a doctor,” Bubrick says.

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