What can you do about kids who chew on everything? How can you use the oral sensory system to help promote calm behavior or to help increase alertness? What does oral sensory even mean?
What does oral sensory mean?
We’ve described how the ears, the skin, the eyes, and the muscles and joints channel information about kids’ surroundings to their brains where it can be processed and understood. But what about the mouth?
The sensory receptors in our mouths allow us to perceive temperature, texture (e.g. smooth like yogurt, hard like a potato chip, or a mixture of textures like cereal with milk), and taste (e.g. sweet, salty, bitter, sour).
Our brains also receive lots of proprioceptive information from the joint of the jaw as we bite and chew different foods that provide different types of resistance (e.g. a crunchy carrot, a chewy piece of candy).
Oral sensory processing also contributes to the way we move our mouths, control our saliva, and produce sounds for clear speech. The way our mouths perceive sensory information helps us eat and drink in a functional, adaptive way and allows us to enjoy and participate in mealtimes with family and friends.
Healthy Oral Sensory Processing
Children with healthy oral sensory systems typically eat a variety of foods with a range of tastes and textures. They are willing to try new foods (within reason…it is common for young kids to avoid certain foods like green leafy vegetables and certain kinds of meat).
Kids with healthy oral sensory systems can tolerate eating foods with mixed textures like cereal and milk or vegetable soup and are able to tolerate tooth brushing and visits to the dentist with minimal protest. A child with a healthy oral sensory system does not need to seek out additional oral sensory experiences (e.g. chewing) in order to regulate his behavior.
Problems With Oral Sensory Processing
Some children struggle with processing and responding to the oral sensory information they encounter in everyday life. They may have a heightened sensitivity (hypersensitivity or defensiveness) to oral input, causing them to be resistant to oral sensory experiences like trying new foods or brushing their teeth. They may choke or gag during these experiences.
These children are often described as “picky eaters” and may have an extremely limited diet, restricting themselves to only a few familiar foods. Children with oral sensory processing issues may also refuse to use utensils to eat, disliking the feeling of a spoon or fork in their mouths.
Their resistance to oral sensory experiences can be accompanied by extreme emotional reactions (e.g. tantrums, fear, running away), making mealtimes and dental hygiene very difficult. These children may be referred to specialized feeding clinics for aversions and to expand their diets and tolerances.
Other children experience decreased sensitivity to oral sensory input (hyposensitivity). These children may require more oral sensory input in order to help them organize their behavior and pay attention.
They may bite, chew on, or mouth non-food objects (clothing, hands, fingers, pencils, toys) and even try to bite others. These children may require the use of chewy toys to prevent this type of behavior. They may make lots of noise with their mouths for extra sensory input (clicking, humming, buzzing), to the point of annoying or distracting the people around them.
Sometimes children who are seeking out more oral sensory input will stuff their mouths with food at mealtimes. Decreased sensitivity to oral input can also lead to difficulty with awareness of the movements of the mouth, including coordinating the movements needed for chewing effectively and drinking from a cup or a straw. It may affect oral motor planning and sound and speech production.
Our Favorite Oral Sensory Suggestions and Activities for Kids
Oral sensory input can affect a child’s levels of arousal and potentially even change behaviors, helping a child become more organized and responsive.
Alerting Oral Sensory Activities
Alerting oral sensory activities can bring more awareness and provide the sensory input kids need to focus and attend better at home and at school. Some examples of alerting oral sensory activities include:
-Vibration (battery powered toothbrush, vibrating toys on cheeks/lips)
-Play with mouth noises: buzzing like a bee, clicking tongue, humming, blowing raspberries
-Play with making faces in a handheld mirror or imitating others’ funny faces: open mouth wide, sticking tongue out, smiling, frowning, filling cheeks up with air
-Eating crunchy snacks (e.g. apples, chips, pretzels, popcorn, raw veggies, toast, graham crackers, granola)
-Eating snacks with sour/sweet tastes (e.g. Warheads, sour gummy worms, grapefruit or orange wedges, lemonade)
-Eating salty snacks (e.g. chips, pretzels, nuts) -Snacking on cold foods (e.g. ice chips, popsicles, frozen grapes)
-Trying snacks with intense tastes and temperatures (Hot Tamales, carbonated beverages)
Calming Oral Sensory Activities
Calming oral sensory activities can help to calm the body, helping kids to regulate their behavior and function more appropriately for learning and other daily tasks. Some examples of calming oral sensory activities include:
-Sucking thicker liquids (milk shakes, smoothies, applesauce, pudding) through a straw
-Drinking from a water bottle with a straw or opening that requires sucking
-Drinking from a water bottle with a bite valve
-Gum or chewy candy (Charleston chews, caramel suckers, Starburst, Skittles, gummy bears, licorice)
-Dried fruits, fruit roll ups,, marshmallows, oranges, raisins
-Blowing bubbles, blowing up balloons, or blowing whistles and other instruments
–Calming breathing techniques for kids
-Maintaining a sound for as long as possible (e.g. singing a note for as long as possible with one breath)
-Singing or humming
-Using chewy toys such as products from Chewigem USA
Our Favorite Oral Sensory Toys
Learn more about picky eating and other feeding challenges
How to Help Kids Practice Self-Feeding With Utensils
Tools, Toys & Games to Help Kids With Feeding Challenges
Oral Sensory & Olfactory Strategies for Teens [FREE Printable]
Read up on the rest of the sensory systems
Sensory Processing Strategies for Teens & Older Kids.
Latest posts by Claire Heffron (see all)
- Groundhog Day Activities: Groundhog Obstacle Course - January 26, 2023
- Valentine’s Day Activities for Kids: Hearts & Arrows Visual Game - January 24, 2023
- Snowman Activity for Kids: Snowman Charades - January 22, 2023
Christina Treece says
Great info here! I will be sharing this on our Facebook page.
Thank you Christina! Glad you found it helpful!
hina kausar says
Nice and easy information thanks
Dayna @ Lemon Lime Adventures says
Wonderful explanation! Love this! Thank you for being part of this series with me!
I enjoyed reading this, and Dayna’s post on Lemon Lime Adventures. My youngest son is a nail biter, a toy chewer, a thumb sucker (this behavior is new), and had always been a lollipop chomper. Going to go read all the other Sensory Processing Posts now because I have a gut feeling I’m going to be reading all about my kiddo. :(
Thea Gomez says
Very helpful info. Thanks. I appreciate this one, I need something like this for my son severe eating disorder.
My 4 1/2 yo son always has something in his mouth (his shirt, his coat, his zipper, a toy, a tissue, etc) and often drools. I never thought anything about it being anything other than a bad happen that I wish he would break. Could this be a sensory issue? He’s my pickiest eater as well, though I can get him to eat most things eventually. He doesn’t have any issues with brushing his teeth or biting others. He does tend to be on the very active side, though he can sit and concentrate on things. If this is a sensory issue, where do I go next with this? Thanks!
I am not quite sure what to do with the activities. Should I be trying all of the suggestions? My son seems to chew on things in school as a response to stress. Is it like the more oral stimulation I provide him with, the less he will need to chew on everything he can get in his mouth?
Hi Janelle, thanks so much for stopping by! For many kids, providing oral stimulation in fun, playful ways or providing alternative items for chewing can help decrease the oral sensory seeking behaviors. You can try some of the activities we have listed and see if they work for your son, but without being able to see him for ourselves, it’s difficult to know exactly what will work for him! We always suggest that readers get some guidance from a medical professional if you have concerns about your child’s behaviors related to sensory processing.
My daughter is 4.5 She seems to have the oral sensory issue using it as a calming method and allows her to focus during schoolwork. I have tried tying a ribbon to a silicone teether in the past but she would eventually get distracted and take it off leaving it somewhere and go back to chewing clothes, hair, etc. As a baby she never used a paci or sucked her thumb so it seems odd that this developed into an issue.
Is giving the child a designated item to chew, like a bracelet, just enabling or prolonging the issue making them even more dependent on it? Or is it the other way around and they will do it no matter what so make it as safe as possible?
Hi Toniko, Thanks for your comment and question. I typically observe the child’s behaviors (like the ones you’ve described above – chewing hair, clothing, etc.) and use those observations to guide decision making about using chewies and teethers. If you notice that your child is frequently putting toys and objects in her mouth and chewing on her hair and clothing, it’s likely that she needs a little extra oral sensory input to keep herself regulated, and using toys and teethers for this might be a solution. If her chewing behavior persists and is very extreme, it may be worth consulting with your doctor and/or an occupational therapist who can help you get to the bottom of your daughter’s oral sensory issues. I hope this helps! :)
Carrie Byrd says
As an educator I am always looking for any information to help me become a better teacher. First we must understand before we can act. Education is the key.
after ready this information I suddenly think my 20 month old son has an oral sensory problem. I think he might have hypersensitivity. He doesn’t like brushing his teeth, very picky eater, he doesn’t like mushy things, spits out half chewed food, doesnt have interest in our textures of food. By reading the info here, will I use the calming activities? If I mention this to our GP will they know it?
My daughter (3.5) has SPD and a severe oral aversion. She had a Mickey button placed at 2 for failure to thrive because of her poor intake.
Eating is a very complex skill. It is the only skill that requires all of our senses.
Thanks for your post. It is good to have as a resource to share with people.
My daughter 7 1/2 year old has SPD and goes to OT twice a week for the last two years.
In the last two weeks she has started making lots of new (annoying) sounds with her mouth, completly unconsious that she is doing it.
How can I help her minimise this?
My son always bites on his clothes but, he will also bite the clothes of others. He will pull on the back of their shirt collars and bite. He does this with his little brother and with myself and now is starting to do this with his classmates at his preschool. I’m afraid that he may unintentionally hurt others. He has already bit his brother by accident. I’ve tried telling him that if he feels the need to bite clothing that he can do so on his own but, often he will act impulsively and bite on others clothing. We’ve tried the Chewigem which he uses but still prefers to bite on clothing. Is there anything you can recommend other than the chewigem for his case?
Hi Christina! Thanks for your question. I wonder if your son might prefer a cloth/fabric chewy instead of one that provides that rubbery, resistive texture? Here are a couple of links to check out. See what you think and let us know if you find an option that works for him!
Wrist band: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004LUH9T0/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B004LUH9T0&linkCode=as2&tag=musimomm02-20
Ann Robertson says
We have an 10 month old nephew who is having difficulty transitioning to solids, finger foods, or any food with lumps or texture. I am a retired pediatric PT, and am looking for some basic guidelines to help his mom progress him to table foods . Child tends to have lower tone but is sitting and has just begun creeping on all fours. Has not yet pulled to stand. He does have normal teeth for his age. I was looking at the suggestions here, but they seem to be aimed at an older child. Hope you can help.
This is very interesting because this is my 5 yr old son. I have read everything but don’t quite understand. With these activities to help them do you always have to keep doing them or do kids grow out of this issue with time? I am confused on how to fix it or develop the brain so this goes away. Or do they suffer forever?
Such a great article. I feel like I finally understand my son’s oral sensory issues. now I understand that he is hyposensitive, what that means and what I can do to help him. thank you so very much!!
Hi, thanks for the great imformation! My two year old daughter has recently (past 4 months) begun sucking on her food. All food! Every meal takes 45 mins to an hour to get her to eat a minimal amount of food. She doesn’t have any food aversions, has alway been a bit of a drooler, straw biter, and in the past week or so I have noticed her occasionally biting her nails. I have tried everything! Rewards for bite/chew/swallow, working for, social stories, crunchy foods, frozen grapes, deep pressure, punishment…everything! Being a speech therapist myself, I took her pacifier away at 10 months for fear that it would inhibit her developing speech. I now wonder if I took it away too soon? Do you have suggestions for any other alternative/replacement behavior to sucking on her food (it’s driving me crazy!). Also, she is small to begin with and is not gaining weight and is noticeably lethargic lately. Ironically, we have been referred for a speech therapy evaluation in a couple of weekssince there are no pediatric OTs in our area.
Stacy Simco says
Is trying a variety of different foods processed through like a blender on a constant basis or working with ones you know your child will tolerate and adding the different textures to those the best way to go about incorporating foods to a child with oral sensory issues?
I am a pediatric O.T. and after reading this and seeing your expertise in this area, wanted to ask a question,,I have a colleague dealing with a young man (4 years old) with autism and lots of sensory seeking behaviour. The worst being sucking metals, ball bearings, coins (so much so his teeth are going green) & his favourite is batteries!! I was just interested to know if any of you have had experience of this or knew of any clinical research/articles about this topic. Any ideas or contacts would be appreciated. Thanks in advance for your help!!
Marisa Ramos says
Hello my name is Marisa, and I am a Portuguese physical therapist
When I was searching about oral mouthing and oral fixation I found your article. It helped me understand the oral system but didn’t answered totally to my doubts.
I have a patient with 3 years old with impairments due to encephalopaty at 6month of age. The patient has a right hemiplegia, right hemianopia, cognitive issues. The patient is always trying to put everything in the mouth. We have tried to show other ways of exploring toys and objects but the patient doesn’t have interest. The kid uses the mouth but is not exploration but habit. How can we help children go trow, specially with cognitive impairments? Thanks so much.