If Your Kid Puts Everything in Her Mouth, You're Not Alone

When my little girl never took to pacifiers, I was secretly elated—maybe even a bit smug. Those kids who still had binkies in their mouth at 4? My kid would never be one of them. She didn't even want that silly thing.

I was proud, which is silly, because it had nothing at all to do with me; if she had wanted it, I would have given it to her. But I wasn't going to admit that to anyone.

Of course, karma bit me in the butt a few months later when my little girl discovered the ability to shove stuffed animals in her mouth.

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She's nearly 3 years old now, and it's still the only way she can sleep. It's rare to find her without the ear or leg of one of her favorite lovies lodged between her teeth.

Let me tell you, those things get disgusting. Even with me washing them every few days, they're gross.

They were also the first oral concern I brought to my little girl's doctor. Surely this couldn't be healthy for her; nothing that emitted that kind of smell just a day or two between washings could be free of bacteria. But the doctor (and later a pediatric dentist) assured me that this was a relatively normal thing for kids to do. As long as I kept washing them, they weren't concerned.

Every expert I've spoken to has told me that's not something I should try to break her of.

At her two-year appointment, I had a few more concerns. My little girl was still stuffing non-food objects in her mouth every chance she got. Rocks at the park. Sticks on the walk home. Even chalk she had found at a friend's house, which led to a call to poison control when she started throwing up later that night.

Now the doctor seemed more troubled. "They usually stop that by around 18 months of age," she explained. "Let's get her a blood test to make sure she's not anemic."

She wasn't. Anemic, that is. And with that confirmation, the doctor seemed more or less convinced there was nothing serious to worry about. Yet. "Bring her back in six months if it hasn't stopped," she recommended.

Six months later, we were back. By that point, a few other things had started to surface. I had noticed that my daughter didn't like to eat hot or even lukewarm food. Instead, she preferred everything to be room temperature or cold. In fact, I could get her to eat just about anything (Including raw spinach) if it were frozen.

Beyond that, she was also starting to exhibit sensitivity to noise, which only seemed to be getting worse. And she still always had those stuffed animals in her mouth.

Then there was the fact that we had just started seeing a behavioral therapist for extreme tantrums.

I know what you're thinking … this child has autism. Or at the very least, she's on the spectrum. But that doesn't seem to be the case. She is social and outgoing, verbal and communicative. She makes eye contact and is sometimes so empathetic that it breaks your heart.

She just seems to have a few small sensory issues that we're working through. The oral stuff being the most prominent. And when we started addressing some of that sensory stuff, most of her behavioral issues resolved as well. We haven't had a major tantrum issue in months.

I've been given a lot of explanations for what might be causing this, and the opinions are pretty varied. Low tone has been suggested by one occupational therapist, for instance, and then just as quickly poo-pooed as a fake diagnosis by another. The only thing they all seem to agree on is that some kids just have an elevated need for oral stimulation, and that my daughter falls into that camp. The reason she never took to pacifiers but loved those stuffed animals? The stuffed animals filled her mouth, whereas the binkies never could have.

These days, we've been making a lot of small changes to help my little girl avoid putting things she shouldn't into her mouth. She wears a necklace now that looks an awful lot like a Lego but is specifically meant for her to chew on whenever she needs. It's been a battle getting her to chew on that instead of the random stick she finds on the ground, but she's starting to learn that it's hers and that it's always there. It's proving to be an awesome tool in situations where she is feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

I'm also told that once she's in school, we can get special permission for her to be able to chew gum, which will apparently help her concentrate in classes. And I've found that if she's asking for a snack when she couldn't possibly be hungry (if we've just finished a big meal, for instance), giving her a bowl of ice usually delights her to no end. Because it's not that she's hungry, it's just that she wants to feel something in her mouth.

I'm learning (her habit) is more common than I realized, and I see it all the time now that I'm aware.

Every expert I've spoken to has told me that's not something I should try to break her of. Instead, it's something I should try to help her find appropriate solutions for, so that she's not the kid with a stuffed animal in her mouth in junior high.

So, that's what we've been doing. It's why my toddler forever has a Lego around her neck, and it's why we've already been experimenting a bit with sugarless bubble gum.

This need for oral stimulation wasn't something I had ever heard of before. But I'm learning it's more common than I realized, and I see it all the time now that I'm aware. In one story in which a mom is afraid her child is being bullied, commenters were quick to point out that a 6-year-old should know better than to talk with a pencil in his mouth. At the children's museum, I recently saw a school-age girl with a stuffed animal hanging out of her mouth. And on random outings, I now routinely spot those same Lego necklaces on other kids, often prompting me to give their parents a knowing smile in passing.

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If you were to meet my little girl, you would probably be immediately taken aback by how bright and sweet she is. She would tell you stories and hold your hand. She might even tell me to go away after a minute or two because she likes making new friends.

You would meet a child who is warm and outgoing, a little girl who might also just so happen to have a Lego necklace wedged between her teeth.

Don't worry … that's allowed. But if you see her cheeking rocks, let me know.

Photograph by: Leah Campbell

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