Get that out of your mouth!

Is her son's habit of chewing on everything destructive or soothing? Jennifer looks to Today's Parent readers for advice.

Photo: uniball/iStockphoto

Last Tuesday, Isaac’s grade one teacher sent a note home:

“He has been putting things in his mouth lately: books, paper clips, etc. I’ve talked to him about swallowing dangers and germs.”

I wasn’t surprised to see this written in his agenda — we’ve been working with his teacher since September to try and curb his habit of chewing on everything in sight. Needless to say, we haven’t been successful.

Isaac has always been a chewer, which is odd to me because as an infant he spit out pacifiers and breastfed only to eat — not to soothe. But around the time of his second birthday, Isaac started to chew on his stuffed animals to settle himself down at bedtime. I have a vivid memory of hearing a horrible gasping and crying sound in the middle of the night over the baby monitor when he was 18 months old. Mr. P and I rushed into his bedroom to discover that one of the button eyes from his favourite stuffed animal was missing. We frantically pried open his mouth to check if he was choking on it, only to find the button clenched in his fist. He was upset that he’d wrecked his toy and wasn’t choking. While buttons seem to be what he chews on the most (with many of my favourite button-down shirts chewed up because of his habit), toys, rocks, sticks, paper and sleeves end up in his mouth, despite our nagging.

As an anxiety and depression sufferer myself, I’m keenly aware of my children’s moods, especially Isaac’s, who is the more sensitive of our two children. Isaac’s chewing was at its worst when he started grade one last September, no doubt from the pressures of full-day school. At the end of the day, the cuffs of his shirts would be chewed to shreds and I can’t count the number of times I had to sew button eyes back on his stuffed animals. We talked to our doctor who was sympathetic and reminded us that it was just a phase. We asked our family dentist who said that the problem isn’t teething because his six-year molars look to be at least a year away from erupting. I asked the amazing Ann Douglas who echoed what our doctor said. Although speaking with Ann eased my worries, it doesn’t change the fact that this self-regulation technique to cope with childhood anxiety is destructive.

(Thinking back to my own childhood, my self-regulation technique was picking at my impetigo, and my mom was told by our family doctor to kick me every time she caught me doing it).

Turns out I’m not alone. When I asked my Facebook friends for help I realized that, for every friend who had a suggestion to help end the chewing, there was another who was dealing with the same problem. Great suggestions included providing gum or washcloths to chew on, code words to distract the chewer, and bracelets or necklaces to fiddle with. But there were two suggestions that really stuck with me — one from my friend Heather, a grade school teacher, and one from fellow Today’s Parent blogger Anchel Krishna.

Heather noticed an increase in the number of chewers and wigglers she has in her classroom this year and takes a proactive approach to helping her students focus on the task at hand. For kids like Isaac who chew on pencils, Heather slips rubber tubing over the ends of the pencils so classroom supplies aren’t ruined. To children who cannot sit still, she offers pom poms and pipe cleaners for their wee fingers to fiddle with. Because kids who chew and fidget may already feel anxious about standing out, Heather offers up fidgets to all children, that way those who really need them don’t feel awkward about asking for them. “Fidgets work to keep the body moving so that the mind can focus on what is happening in class,” Heather explains.

Whereas Heather’s practices in the classroom help kiddos cope, Anchel’s approach digs a little deeper and uses the theories behind self-regulation to help her daughter with special needs, Syona. The two resources Anchel turns to most often (provided by Syona’s therapists) are websites filled with thought-provoking and informative articles on nurturing emotional resilience in young children. Thanks to Anchel, both the Canadian Self-Regulation Institute and Reaching IN…Reaching OUT websites are now bookmarked on my computer.

So where does this leave us — other than with a box full of chewed up Lego and paperback books? With only a few weeks left in the school year, I’m hesitant to start sending Isaac to class with gum and pom poms for fear of disrupting other students in the classroom (even if our son would benefit). Instead, I think we’ll patiently wait out the next few weeks and work with Isaac during the more easy-going days of summer to help fix his fidgets.

Does your child have an oral fixation? How did you help them end the habit? Tweet me your experiences @jenpinarski.

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