Tag Archives: sensory seeking

Does Your Child Still Chew on Clothes or Toys?

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Babies love to munch on their toys.  They nibble at book bindings, chew the heck out of their loveys, and some little ones really love to chew their pacifiers.  As they grow, most children let go of this behavior.  Chewing and biting for sensory exploration and state modulation diminishes and a child’s behavior evolves into thinking, communicating, and smooth internal state regulation.

But some older kids slip their sleeve or shirt collar into their mouth whenever they can, and are left with a soggy mess by the end of the day.  They suck on their markers or the grocery store cart.  Their toys and pencils are ragged witnesses to the continuing use of oral stimulation, long past the first year or two of life.

Why do they do this?

Some kids are seeking to fill an oral cavity that is less stimulated due to low muscle tone, hypermobility and/or limited sensory discrimination.  Shoving a sleeve in there provides that sensory boost as muscles, skin and ligaments stretch.  Children that need more sensory input due to inactivity, boredom, physical limitations and illness use oral input as an always-available and independent option.  Other kids use biting and chewing to modulate their level of arousal (and open their eustachian tubes, BTW!).  While most OTs know about the modulation piece, the way biting and chewing impact hearing and even vestibular health isn’t so commonly considered.  Biting can stem nystagmus for some kids, and it can lessen dizziness or help a child move their eyes apart as they watch objects in the distance (divergence) for reading the board and for sports.  For kids that use biting well after the toddler biting phase should be over, evaluating any ocular (eye) or ENT issues can be helpful.

Exploring the level of stress in a child’s life outside the classroom or therapy clinic is another consideration.  Biting and chewing are calming proprioceptive inputs that a child can use when they are anxious or fearful, or just uncertain.  It may not be possible to impact the stress of divorce, moving to a new home, or adding a newborn to the family, but appreciating these situations as factors in behavior can improve how families, teachers and therapists respond.  Older children could be trying to modulate their level of arousal without causing trouble by running, jumping or yelling.  Chewing is less likely to be disruptive in a classroom setting.

What Can You Do Once a Chewing Habit is Established?

Once oral sensory seeking behavior takes hold, it isn’t easy to stop.  It can be very satisfying and accessible, particularly for young children.  Addressing the core cause or causes means taking things one step at a time.  Many children do well with a multi-sensory diet added to their daily activities.  More physical activity or more frequent activity breaks can help.  I find that more vestibular input in particular can be powerful.  Using whistles can be helpful when chosen well and supervised for safety and overall modulation.   Some children need to become more aware of their behaviors; older kids can use some of the “How Does Your Engine Run?” concepts to take responsibility for their behaviors and independently seek alternative sensory input.  Kids that learn mindfulness techniques can incorporate those into their program as well.

The use of chewing objects can help, but there are three concerns that have to be addressed:  hygiene, safety, and speech.  A child that sucks or chews on any object isn’t going to monitor its cleanliness, so make sure you use non-toxic soap that is carefully rinsed off.  A chewing necklace should never be worn while sleeping due to safety issues, nor can it be used when it could become snagged on branches or sports equipment.  And finally, having something in the mouth, whether it is a pacifier or a chewing toy, will minimize and alter speech if it isn’t removed for communication.  Never allow a child who is talking or learning to talk to devolve into head nods so they can keep chewing.

Looking for more information on sensory issues?  Read Sensory Sensitivity In Toddlers: Why Responding Differently to “Yucky!” Will Help Your Child and Weaning the Pacifier From An Older Child.

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When Sensory Seeking Becomes Attention Seeking

As an occupational therapist, I see sensory-seeking kids every week who crash, jump, wiggle and hug their way through their days.  If a couch is available, it is either a launching pad or a landing pad.  Adults are for hanging on, landing on, or giving full-body hugs.  Seeking unsafe or inappropriate movement and touch for sensory seeking can be worked on in therapy and with a sensory diet, but there is another aspect of these behaviors that often needs to be addressed.

Once a child recognizes that adults will give him more attention but not meaningful consequences for sensory-based behavior, it can be his choice to use these behaviors to engage with them socially, to divert an adult’s attention from a sibling or a phone call, or to avoid participation in something less desirable, like cleaning up the mess he made earlier that day.

Don’t get me wrong:  many sensory-actions-that-are-really-attention-seeking behaviors start out as a child’s way to calm down and get more proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile input.  Kids can also do the same actions for either reason all in the same day.  Crashing in the morning to calm down, crashing at night because an older sibling is getting all the attention.

All kids like to experiment with how far, how loud and how hard they can move their bodies.  Sensory seekers have greater frequency, variety and endurance of these behaviors, and can look more unstable, unfocused and uncoordinated without some movement input Good Posture: Is it Vestibular or Proprioceptive?.  An example that adults can connect with would be the guy in the meeting who taps his pen on his teeth as he thinks about a solution to a problem.  He isn’t doing it to annoy you (probably); he is getting some sensory input to rev up his system and focus harder.  Really.  Once you can look at his actions through a sensory lens, it’s still annoying behavior, but you know it isn’t a plot to irritate you at work.

How can you tell whether a child is seeking movement input more for communication/behavioral reasons than for sensory satisfaction?  This one is more of an art than a science, but here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Can he ask for attention effectively when you are otherwise occupied?  If your child is great at interrupting you on the phone politely, and expects a consequence for rudeness, but he still demands a full-body hug, then he may really want that deep pressure and not see another source of calming input.  Have you given him clear instruction about how to request deep pressure?  It might be time to clarify it.  Even kids around 2 can say “Big hug please” or sign it to you.
  • Does your child get a reasonable amount of physical play every day?  Small children need to stretch it out and move.  A lot.  Any child that doesn’t get enough movement will seek it out.  It isn’t sensory or behavior; it is satisfaction of a natural physical need.
  • Have you created clear expectations about tasks like cleaning up, and developed methods for going from one activity/location to another?  Self-Regulation in Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: Boost Skills By Creating Routines and Limits  Kids that either don’t want to end a game, don’t want to put toys away, get dressed, or go on to the next event can stall by using fun crashing and jumping instead.  If you have no problem getting them to clean up in order to go out for pizza, then you might have a stalling child, not a sensory seeking one, right now.
  • Is your child more interested in your reaction to his jumping or crashing?  Could you give him deep pressure while talking to someone else, and he is totally fine with that?  Does he ask for deep pressure when he already has your undivided attention, or just when you are on the phone or speaking with his dad?  Sensory seekers primarily want that physical input, and having an audience is secondary.  If a child is more interested in you seeing him launch off the couch and won’t switch to the available outdoor trampoline that he usually craves, it may be because he will be losing your attention once he goes outside.  And that was what he was really seeking.

Toe Walker? Why The Problem Usually Isn’t Touch Sensitivity

Kids that toe-walk after they have fully mastered walking and running (usually 24-30 months) are often accused of avoiding the feeling of their feet on the floor.  It certainly looks that way.  The truth is usually not so simple, and the solution not so easy to achieve. Getting a toe-walker to use a heel-toe gait pattern means you have to address the reason they choose to use this pattern, and manage any loss of movement at their ankles that has developed.

The great majority of children that I have treated who toe-walk are actually seeking more sensory input, and are getting it by teetering around on the balls of their feet.  The vestibular input as they sway, and the proprioceptive input of all that joint pressure and muscle contraction is what they really crave.  Touching or not touching the floor has very little to do with it.  If a child is a true tactile avoider, it is probably not just on the soles of their feet.  Avoiders dislike the feeling of clothing on their skin, food in their mouths, even water splashing them in the bathtub.  You know if you have a tactile avoider.  Life is a real challenge.

Sensory seekers come in a few different flavors.  Some have low muscle tone and are looking for a blast of information that they don’t get when walking with flat feet.  Is Low Muscle Tone A Sensory Processing Issue? Some are more drawn to the swish and sway movement as they walk.  They love to flip upside down and spin around just for the fun of it.  A lot.

Some sensory seekers toe-walk and then intentionally crash into furniture or people.  They can use this pattern as a two-fer.  They get both the fun of the proprioceptive input and they avoid the challenge of controlling their deceleration as they arrive at their destination.  I have worked with toddlers that simply cannot walk to a chair, turn around and sit without ending up on the floor.  You can almost see the wheels in their head turning as they decide ” I usually fall anyway.  How about just crashing intentionally and making it a game? She will just catch me and I get a hug!”

Because toe-walking is normal (yes, normal!) for very young children just learning to walk and run, it can be ignored long enough to result in shortening of the ankle tendons and weakening of the muscles that move the toes up toward the knee.  At this point, a child may not be able to achieve full range of movement easily.  Enter the physical therapist for stretching and strengthening.

Here are some simple strategies to address toe walking in it’s early stages, before the Achilles tendon has shortened significantly.

Duck walking:  everybody likes ducks.  Pretending to be a duck, pointing toes up and out to the side while quacking, is a cute and fun exercise.

Squats:  Yes, squats.  You can go mega and have a child stand on a 1-3 inch thick book then squat down to pick something up.  Big stretch, plus some vestibular action as their head dips down.

Jumping:  They have to land on a flat foot with heel contact, and jumping along a path made by tape can be a really fun game.

Choose a high-topped shoe:  Go old-school and try a high top sneaker (trainers, tennis shoes, or whatever you call them in your area).   First of all, it looks seriously cute on little kids, and it will act as a soft brace to prevent some of the toe-walking.  The hard core toe-walkers may actually need an orthotic, so if you still see a lot of pronounced toe walking, consult your pediatrician and see a physiatrist.  They can recommend corrective inserts that do more than prevent a child from coming up on their toes.  A good orthotic can help a child strengthen the muscles that he wasn’t using while toe-walking.

Give them more vestibular and proprioceptive input:  If a child really needs does more sensory information, then there are fun ways to deliver the goods.  Swinging, rolling down a hill, climbing walls, yoga, and other absolutely fun activities should be available to them.  Of course, a targeted sensory “diet” is a great idea.  Well thought-out and intensive activities created by an occupational therapist to satisfy a child’s interests and needs can result in hours of typical movement and positioning for school and play.

Parents and therapists:  please submit a comment and add activities that have worked for your children!