“Not in your mouth!” It’s a phrase every parent of a toddler has called out dozens of times.
There’s no such thing as the five-second rule when you’re 18 months old – everything is up for grabs. Of course, there are safety risks, choking hazards, and a world full of germs that stress moms and dads out.
So what can parents do? When should you be concerned about your child’s behavior? Let’s take a closer look at why many younger children seem obsessed with tasting everything.
5 Reasons Little Kids Put Things in Their Mouths
1. Babies Feel Things with Their Lips and Tongues
Child development expert, Dorothy Einon, writes that children who are younger than seven months can’t explore object with their hands yet. They can grab onto things, but that’s about it, no prodding, poking, squeezing, or stroking.
Instead, those little hands clasping toys and other objects go directly to the mouth. There’s a reason for this. Einon says a baby’s mouth has more nerve endings than any other part of the body. “So if she really wants to find out what something feels like, she puts it in her mouth,” Einon explains.
Babies also have sensitive gag reflexes. That’s why you’ll see lots of babies gagging as they try new foods with different flavors and textures. This reaction is also a natural way for them to avoid choking.
2. Relieving the Pain of Teething
Cutting a new tooth is an uncomfortable experience for little ones. Parents will notice young children chewing on toys, books, clothing, and other items because the pressure gives their sore gums some relief.
This type of behavior will stop after those teeth get through the gums. Giving teething children toys meant to be chewed on, or applying special pain-relieving gel can help.
3. Continuing to Explore Their World
As children become more mobile, they will start using their hands to examine objects more often. However, their mouths still play a role in exploration.
Just about everything is brand new and interesting to younger toddlers. Between infancy and 24 months, it’s common for children to pop objects into their mouths. They’re curious, and they’re using all five senses to learn about their surroundings.
However, child development experts like Einon say you should only expect this type of behavior up until two years of age, at which point toddlers begin exploring more with their hands.
Babies have the natural urge to suck, which is why many parents use a pacifier to keep infants calm between feedings.
As parents ween toddlers off of the pacifier, children may turn to other things in an attempt to soothe themselves. This is when thumb-sucking or nail-biting may begin. Other children might put their hair or clothing in their mouths.
Psychologist, Dr. Carla Fry told JusttheFactsBaby.com that older kids who are shy in social situations may show this kind of behavior when they experience mild anxiety. “Sucking or chewing on objects becomes a self-soothing behavior, or a way to release jittery energy.”
Dr. Fry says most children who become orally fixated outgrow the habit by the age of eight.
5. Oral Fixation and Developmental Issues
While it’s not uncommon for toddlers to stick things in their mouths, it shouldn’t become a habit. Einon says by the age of three most children will stop using their mouths as a form of exploration and will be more interested in what toys and other objects actually do.
However, if your child continues to constantly put things in his or her mouth beyond 24 months, it could be an oral fixation. The website Day2DayParenting.com says this could be the result of weening a child from bottles and pacifiers too soon or too late.
There is also a more serious disorder called pica. In these instances, children display an appetite for non-nutritious items. They may regularly eat things like paper, dirt, sand from the sand box, drywall, or paint chips.
Pica disorder comes with both safety and health concerns as well as possible developmental issues. It is wise to discuss this type of behavior with your child’s pediatrician. You can learn more about problems associated with pica on WebMD.com.
What Can Parents and Caretakers Do?
If you want to get your child to stop putting so many things in his or her mouth, demanding them to stop may not be the best idea. Many childhood development experts recommend redirecting their attention instead.
Consider giving your young child crackers or a sippy cup if it helps keep foreign objects out of his or her mouth.
Child psychiatrist and author, Dr. Elizabeth Berger, told a concerned parent who asked a question about her daughter’s oral habits on Parents.com that the toddler’s behavior would likely pass, and the mother shouldn’t turn it into a power struggle.
“You don’t need to show disapproval – but you can say kindly, ‘Oh no no, we don’t eat plants’ as you rescue the plant from being mouthed; giving this information can’t hurt.”
Addressing Safety Risks to Protect Your Children
While it is fairly normal for babies and younger toddlers to put things in their mouths, that doesn’t eliminate the concerns that come with those actions. Parents and caretakers still need to keep a close eye on curious children as they become mobile.
When it comes to choking hazards, you’ll need to do your best to keep small toys and other object like coins out of the hands of your toddler. Explain to older kids how you need their help keeping those items away from their younger siblings.
A good precautionary measure is to learn how to give the Heimlich maneuver to toddlers and infants. Parents and caregivers can and should take Heimlich/CPR certification training, which could help you save a child’s life. Many local Red Cross chapters offer such classes.
Safety starts in your home. When you’re the parent or caretaker of a toddler, you need to make the house as safe as possible.
Cupboards and drawers containing toxic chemicals that could lead to poisonings should be secured with child safety locks. Products such as medications, household cleaners, and laundry detergent packets should be placed out of reach with the package closed.
You can also make sure any potentially dangerous products you purchase come in child-resistant packaging.
For instance, the Child-Guard® slider is a child-resistant closure designed for use with flexible packages.
It’s similar to the familiar child-safety caps found on bottles of medicine in that it requires extra skill to open a package. That means you will have more time to take a potentially dangerous product away before a child puts it in his or her mouth.
Look for the Child-Guard® and Slider-Guard™ closures on products from responsible brands.
When you choose this type of packaging, you’ll be taking one more important step to keep your family safe from harm.