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Why Is My Child Chewing on Their Shirt?

Screenshot 2024 02 11 080126You probably remember your baby’s oral stage, when they seemed to put everything they got their little hands on into their mouth. Infants do this when teething or to learn about the world around them. But what’s going on when a preschooler or school-age child sucks or chews on their shirt or other clothing items?

Sometimes, an older child will develop a habit of putting the neckline, cuff, or hem of their shirt into their mouth. They may chew or suck on the material to the point it develops holes or wears thin. You might worry this behavior will draw criticism from peers and teachers or that it’s associated with certain mental health or developmental problems. Let’s take a closer look at why your child is chewing on their clothes and how you can help them break the habit.

Why Do Kids Chew on Their Shirts?

Oral stimulation plays an important role in your child’s development. “Oral motor seeking is rooted in our most basic methods of self-regulation or calming,” says Monal Patel, MS, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Blue Bird Day Program in Chicago, IL. “From infancy to toddlerhood, a child utilizes a rooting reflex to fulfill the basic needs of hunger and thirst. Later, they may use that sucking and rooting pattern to soothe themselves, most often in the form of pacifiers and thumb sucking.”

Beyond the toddler years, some kids may still seek to stimulate their mouths and jaws. This is known in the occupational therapy world as proprioceptive input. “This deep pressure can be soothing to children as they seek ways to calm themselves that are self-directed and predictable,” says Patel. A child who self-soothes in this way may chew on their shirt because it’s readily accessible.

When to Worry About Shirt Chewing

Just because this is a natural and deeply rooted behavior doesn’t mean it should be ignored as your child ages. “By age three, kids usually stop putting things in their mouths and exploring things this way,” says Laura Grashow, PsyD, a licensed pediatric clinical psychologist at the Child & Family Institute in Scarsdale, NY. “But I have seen fourth and fifth graders grab their shirt collars and put them in their mouths.”

However, there are times when a child’s shirt chewing can have a negative impact. “The most important distinction is to determine if sucking or chewing is hindering your child’s ability to participate in their daily routines or is posing a safety concern,” says Patel. For instance, if your child’s chewing is destroying a school or sports uniform or is causing a choking hazard, you will want to intervene.

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