Toddlers are almost as bad as puppies about chewing on whatever they find at graze level. Mouthing objects begins in babyhood, when lots of learning is based on sensory experiences. However, chronic chewing on a favorite blanket more likely serves the purpose of relieving the anxiety of separating from parents or the discomfort of teething. Face it -- toddlers aren't old enough for chewing gum, a substance that helps so many adults allay stress.
Virginia speech language pathologist Suzanne Evans Morris describes the mouth as a baby's "window to the world," especially at birth when the mouth is one of the body's most powerful sensory tools. The mouth teaches babies and young children about matters including taste, texture and shape, as well as concepts such as softness and firmness. Toddlers gradually apply their mouth-feel knowledge to solid foods, Morris says. What adults refer to as comfort foods, such as macaroni and cheese, are often ones they loved as young children.
When teething makes gums sore, Morris says, young children want to put things in their mouth, because chewing increases comfort. However, the toddler habit of sucking or chewing on toys, blankets and other non-edibles may continue through preschool as a habit that soothes anxiety. Sometimes chewing on loveys, such as blankets, is a young child's way of making transitions, such as going to bed. But if your teeth grind in frustration each time your child chews on his blanket, try to help him break the habit by offering healthy distractions whenever the blanket gets near his mouth.
Although mostly behavioral, indiscriminate chewing on non-edible objects can proceed to eating those items, such as buttons, clay, dirt, paint chips and toothpaste. This may be caused by a potentially unhealthy craving called pica, which may require medical intervention. Pica is not unusual in children ages 2 to 3. However, developmental disabilities, including autism and mental retardation, are sometimes the cause when pica is excessive.
Keep in mind that similar to adults who like to gnaw on gum and pens, some kids are soothed by chewing. Prepare yourself. The day may come when your kid says she can't concentrate on her homework without chewing gum, and she may have a point. Research from St. Lawrence University in New York shows that the act of chewing it briefly before a test -- not the ingredients in chewing gum -- aids concentration and boosts the ability to solve problems. However, researchers don't yet know what causes this effect. Here's another thought to keep in mind as you moan about the cost of gum at the supermarket -- at least your child won't be chewing on his old lovey, dovey, baby blanket.That might be a socially acceptable oral fixation at age 4, but not at 14.