Children Who Chew on their Clothing

As we approach winter, long sleeves and cuddly collars become the norm, so too does the chewing of sleeves and collars in sensory seeking children! Parents look on in horror as their children’s brand new winter warmers are transformed into wet and tatty shreds! What on earth makes chewing of sleeve cuffs and shirt collars so appealing to children? Let’s take a look at what makes these children tick and why this seemingly disgusting habit could hold such appeal.

Most children, who put non-food items into their mouths to suck or to chew on, are oral sensory seekers. They put things into their mouths as they seek sensory input.  They might suck hard on their fingers and also bite their nails, fingers, pencils, toys, furniture, and of course, their clothing!

Biting down hard on an object gives strong proprioceptive input to the muscles and tendons of the jaw, as well as providing strong proprioceptive input to the teeth. This sensory input is most organising and pleasurable to the child who actively seeks this form of oral input. Biting hard on such objects also helps the child to organise his nervous system, helping to shift anxious tension and assisting the child in dealing with stress. In fact, we often notice that these inappropriate sucking, biting, and chewing behaviours become worse when the child is more stressed or anxious. It is therefore most important to try to reduce stress and anxiety for the child, wherever possible. So, if you are aware of the situations that stress your child, you would do well to try to make changes that might be possible in these areas of your child’s life, so as to reduce the everyday stressors that impact so adversely on him or her.

It would also be helpful to offer the child strong proprioceptive input in other ways. For example, let the child do heavy work, such as helping you to carry in the shopping, carrying heavy objects (briefly), scrubbing floors or other objects, kneading dough, sanding wood, digging in the garden, and other boisterous active outdoor play. Playing with Playdough and using tools such as Stampers that involve resisted hand activity can provide much needed proprioceptive input.

It would also be helpful to provide strong oral proprioceptive input by offering the child crunchy foods, such as carrots, apples, or celery to chew on. Chewing on chewing gum for brief periods could also be helpful, but one should always remember that the action of chewing sends a signal to the gut that food is on its way - so chewing gum for extended periods is not optimal for the gut as digestive juices begin to flow in the absence of food.

It always makes sense to discuss the inappropriate chewing habits with your child, and to try to discourage them from doing this. This discussion should always take place in a private situation, and never in a public space where the child could experience shame and humiliation. Any shame and humiliation only serve to raise the child’s anxiety and should never be an option. You could however point out to the child that chewing on his clothing damages it, and that it is also not very nice to look at when his clothing is wet and covered in spit. This can help to provide some cognitive reasoning for the child, and might discourage the formation of a disgusting habit. In our opinion, one should always try to discourage the chewing of clothing or toys at the outset before a habit forms. Sometimes, it could be helpful to take a picture of your child to show him how his clothing looks when he chews it. It must however be remembered that most of the time, the child is in fact not aware that he is chewing on his collar or cuff. He simply has a strong urge to chew on something, and his shirt collar or his sleeves provide a handy object for chewing on! It is therefore important to be able to offer alternatives for chewing on, such as soft gummy textured oral chewies that are specially designed for the job.

We have a number of chewable products, which could be of value for children who need oral chewies. The Beckman Tri-Chew is a flexible, chewable triangle that is held comfortably in the child’s hand while he chews. We also have various Ark Grabbers, including the Textured Grabber, which offers a lovely textured surface for the child to mouth and to chew on. Sensory Stuff’s own Simple Chew is a bendable chewy made of medical grade silicon and threaded simply onto a length of cord. The Simple Chew offers a softer and more pliable texture for children to chew on.  Younger children might benefit from wearing a chewy rubber necklace made out of knotted TheraTubing. This stretchy tubing is available in several one meter lengths that can then be fashioned into a knotted necklace for a child to wear. Most folk find that the blue TheraTubing works best for this.

For the child that chews on pencils, applying a gummy textured Pencil Topper could be most effective in offering a more acceptable option for chewing on. Sensory Stuff also has Chewy Pencils, which have a gummy sleeve around the top of the pencil for the child to chew on.

The Z-Grabber is a vibrating oral-motor tool that can be used with adult direction and supervision to provide organising oral vibration input. Sensory Stuff also carries other products in the ARK range of imported oral-motor products that can be used by Speech Therapists and Occupational Therapists.