It could be a favorite stuffed animal, a teether, or even the dog’s toy (gross!)… but they all have a way of ending up in a baby’s mouth!
No matter how much you keep an eye on your baby, nor how much you clean, even a small piece of lint can be quickly grabbed by your curious baby. And then it’s in their mouth.
Mouthing is completely normal. Babies explore the world around them in many ways, and mouthing is just one way they receive information. However, normal or not, it leaves many parents exhausted and concerned.
How long must you watch for choking hazards?
Do you need to be worried about germs?
For any parent, especially a first-time parent, the mouthing stage can be exhausting.
The good news?
Research shows you needn’t worry too much about germs. In fact, newer research is showing that exposure to these everyday germs are an important part of developing a baby’s immune system.
As a fellow parent, while I’m glad germs are one less thing to worry about, I know this stage can still be incredibly stressful.
So, here are some common questions tired parents want to know about babies putting everything in their mouths.
Why Do Babies Always Put Things In Their Mouth?
Babies put objects in their mouths for a few reasons. The explanation we’ve heard for the longest time is it’s simply part of how they explore the world around them. Everything is new to a baby, and they use each of their senses to understand and figure things out.
When a baby mouths an object, they’re actually feeling different textures and shapes. Mouthing a fuzzy blanket with lint is not something they’re likely to continue to do. They learn the blanket feels wonderful on their skin, but not so much in their mouth!
Mouthing objects is also an important part of preparing for solid foods. While we shouldn’t allow babies to mouth small objects which can pose a choking hazard, large teethers, and infant-friendly toys are great to have on hand. With mouthing, they’re engaging muscles, sensations, and even their tongue.
Anecdotally, some people notice infants and toddlers who are allowed to mouth safe objects whenever they like may get through the mouthing stage faster than peers with restricted access. A developing brain and body continues to figure out something until it has less benefit.
Mouthing And The Immune System
As we’ve learned more about germs and microbes in recent decades, some research shows mouthing plays a vital role in developing the immune system. So even that old baby toy covered in dust bunnies under the sofa may play a vital role in exposure and building the immune system.
While we shouldn’t allow infants and toddlers to mouth any and everything with no regard for germs, we don’t need to be germaphobes either.
“As we live ‘cleaner’ lives and spend less time in contact with soil, we isolate ourselves from these bacteria, causing our immune systems to get antisocial. Ultimately, this can lead to inappropriate inflammation,” says Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein.
Dr. Shetreat-Klein is a physician and author of Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child. You can read more about her in the article linked below:
To understand more, be sure to read Are Our Kids Too Clean? 6 Facts About Kids And Dirt.
How Do I Get My Baby To Stop Putting Things In Their Mouth?
The question many parents have is how to make this behavior stop. Keeping an eye on busy babies and toddlers can be quite draining. We certainly don’t want them to choke on anything. So how can we make it stop while allowing for the developmentally appropriate and beneficial mouthing stage?
In short, you can’t really make a baby stop. Some parents try to encourage using a pacifier, but then you need to weigh up the risks and benefits of frequent use as they get older.
Rather than asking how to stop babies from putting things in their mouth, we can ask how can we allow them to safely explore.
The following may help manage until you’re passed the mouthing stage:
- Have infant and toddler age-appropriate and safe toys they can mouth
- Provide teethers and items that are safe to chew and mouth
- When they’re over six months of age and ready, allow them to try safe finger foods – read about Baby Led Weaning to learn more
- Keep choking hazards, small objects, and potentially dangerous or toxic items out of baby’s reach. Be particularly careful with medications and cleaning products
- Provide safe areas baby can explore with plenty of their safe toys they can mouth while exploring
- Don’t stress about a little dust, dirt or a stale Cheerio baby may come into contact with. Things to worry about may include food which can spoil, animal waste, and anything with a likelihood of illness-causing bacteria
- Allow them to explore safely outside. A taste of bitter grass or a bit of sand is often enough of a deterrent from frequent tastings. Use your language to reinforce what they express such as, “Yes, yucky! We eat food, not sand.” They won’t quite understand the message for a while, but it’s a great habit for you and an opportunity to help them explore and develop their language
- If your child likes a pacifier, a teether, or a chew friendly object, keep it close by (perhaps with a clip) to use as a distraction and soother if they’re in a place where mouthing and exploring isn’t safe (e.g. store, doctor’s office, etc.)
So, how do you get your baby to stop? Help them explore safely and use your language. This stage, fortunately, doesn’t last forever.
Should I Allow Baby To Put Things In Their Mouth?
It’s easy to think of what we want baby to be doing at two, four, or nine years old, and putting random objects in their mouth all day isn’t one of those things. When we think that way, we have a tendency to worry about what they’re doing at just six or nine months.
When it comes to challenging stages, it’s important to remember that what your baby does today isn’t a preview into what they will do years from now. It’s not only okay, it’s helpful to allow your baby to explore with their mouth.
It seems silly and sometimes frustrating to us as parents. However, developmental specialists understand it’s a sign of some important learning skills.
When Do Babies Stop Putting Things In Their Mouth?
So, you understand why babies do this, but how long does it last? The short answer is it can vary, quite a bit, just like every other stage of development.
The long answer, most will stop putting things in their mouth by the age of three. It tends to be a lot of mouthing during infancy. Then a bit of mouthing in the early toddler years. Then as they near three, they tend to understand food is for mouths and other objects may pose a risk.
However, there are children who find comfort or stimulation from oral input. If your child is nearing three and they’re still mouthing a lot of objects, sometimes offering a safe item can help. Chew necklaces have become a popular option and can save the sleeves of shirts some kids tend to chew on.
Some never fully outgrow the desire for frequent oral input. They tend to grow up to be the teens who love to chew gum, mints, etc.
The only concern would be if your child is getting well beyond three or four and continuing to mouth or eat objects which aren’t food and pose a risk. It isn’t uncommon for some, even adults, to chew pen caps and such. However, if your child is for example chewing and swallowing erasers in second grade, you may want to reach out to their doctor to discuss PICA.
During infancy and toddlerhood, it’s simply par for the course watching your little one explore their world and build their immune system through mouthing.
As parents, we know how challenging this stage can be. If you have older children or pets in the home, it seems even more challenging to keep small items up and away. Know that it’s normal for your little one to explore, including with their mouth. Remember that we don’t need to and really shouldn’t give our children a sterile environment. Just do your best to keep hazards away while providing plenty of safe time and objects for them to explore, even with their mouth.
Reference: Infant mouthing behavior: the immunocalibration hypothesis: Request PDF. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2020.