Mouthing is a phase in a baby’s life when they tend to put everything in their mouth. It is defined as a contact of an object with the mouth, lips, or tongue (1). Ranging from their hands, toys, blankets, and teethers, babies may mouth almost anything they can grab.
But what leads to mouthing in the first place? In this MomJunction post, we tell you all about the reasons, risks, and necessary precautions related to mouthing in babies.
Why Do Babies Put Everything In Their Mouths?
Once babies develop a grip and can hold things, they try to put everything in their mouths to determine the texture, shape, and taste of the item. Babies are born with certain reflexes. A reflex is a muscle reaction that happens automatically in response to stimulation. Certain sensations or movements produce specific muscle responses (2). The common reflexes related to mouthing are:
- Rooting reflex: This reflex is seen when the baby’s cheek is stroked. The infant turns towards the side where he/she was stroked and exhibits sucking actions.
- Suck reflex: The baby makes a sucking motion when the area around the mouth is touched.
Rooting and sucking reflexes are a natural phenomenon that causes the baby to put everything in their mouth during infancy.
There are some other attributes of mouthing in babies.
- It is believed that mouthing is a natural phenomenon that exercises the mouth’s muscles, thus making them strong for essential actions like eating and speaking. By mouthing, the babies learn to establish a harmonious movement between the lips, tongue, jaws, and cheeks.
- During the teething phase, babies are seen to be putting things in their mouths to soothe the sore and irritated gums (3).
- Some studies suggest that mouthing may lead to speech development in babies (1).
- Some people believe that putting everything in their mouths helps develop a baby’s immunity by exposing them to various microorganisms.
- It is also believed that mouthing makes the baby habituated to the feeling of a solid substance in their mouth. It might help in a smooth transition to solid foods.
Do All Babies Put Things In Their Mouths?
Most babies have the tendency to place an object in their mouth. The habit is often present at some point during infancy. Most babies outgrow the habit or stop placing specific objects in the mouth as they grow a little older. It is noticed that babies use pacifiers for a longer duration than other objects to put in their mouths (4).
Why Do Babies Put Their Feet In Their Mouths?
Babies place feet in their mouth for the same reasons as they mouth their hands. As babies begin to grow, they develop better control and strength and thus are able to lift their legs and grab them with their hands. The flexibility of a baby’s body allows the feet to reach the mouth easily.
Mouthing helps the little one explore their feet with their mouths. For non-mobile babies, holding toes is like having a toy that is never far away. For some babies, sucking on to the toes might also help soothe them.
When Do Babies Stop Putting Things In Their Mouths?
Usually, babies stop putting things in their mouths by the age of three years. But in some cases, the habit may go beyond four years. They might also develop a habit of finger or thumb-sucking. Babies with mouthing habits beyond four years of age might need some corrective measures or habit-breaking appliances (5).
What Are The Possible Risks Of Babies Putting Things In Their Mouth?
Although the habit of mouthing in itself is not harmful, it might bring some possible risks along for the babies.
Babies with a habit of mouthing might put anything and everything in their mouth. It becomes even more difficult to monitor them when they begin crawling. It exposes the baby to contaminated objects, which increases the risk of bacterial or viral infections. Keep the floor and toys of the baby clean to avoid infections. Keep the baby’s toys separate from their siblings’ to prevent the transfer of pathogens.
Choking is a potential hazard for babies who have a habit of mouthing. It is good to store small items away to prevent the baby from mouthing the objects. Provide toys that are not a choking hazard or have no sharp edges that could hurt the baby.
Avoid giving food items that may choke the baby. Some people say that anything of a size that can pass through the ring of a toilet paper tube is not safe for babies. Bead necklaces or bead bracelets are also risky and a potential life hazard (6).
Safety Precautions To Take During The Mouthing Phase
You may take the following precautions to protect your baby from the potential risks of mouthing.
- Keep babies away from choking hazards.
- Try and keep your baby under adult supervision so that they do not put harmful things in their mouth, especially outdoors.
- Clean all the toys and objects that the baby is likely to put in their mouth. Disinfecting the toys might help prevent infection in babies.
- Positive reinforcement can play a major role in weaning the baby off the habit. If your baby tends to mouth random objects, then substitute the harmful things with child-safe products.
- For verbal and older babies, encourage them to understand the meaning of “no.” Gently say no to them when they are putting things in their mouths.
- Teethers are a good choice for babies who are undergoing teething. Chewing on these toys will keep the baby at ease and not leave the scope to put other harmful things in their mouth.
- Pacifiers might help in keeping the babies calm while they are in the mouthing phase. Use small loops to attach the pacifier to the baby’s sleeve so that they do not drop it frequently and contaminate it. Avoid hanging the pacifier to the baby’s neck to prevent strangulation.
- Keep all liquids and cosmetics like shampoo, phenyl, detergent, lipsticks, etc., away from the baby’s reach to avoid any poisonous ingestion.
- Keep the first aid box and the medicines away from the baby to avoid the accidental ingestion of medicines.
While mouthing is normal in babies, it is natural for parents to worry. Problems associated with the mouthing can be avoided by taking some precautions. Babies mostly outgrow the habit by themselves. Do not hesitate to talk to a pediatrician if you find any issues with the baby’s mouthing habit or if you find it associated with any other symptoms.
Do you have any experiences with the mouthing phase in your baby? Let us know in the comment section below.
2. Infant reflexes; U.S. National Library of Medicine
3. Symptoms Associated With Infant Teething: A Prospective Study; OFFICIAL JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS
4. An Observational Study of Object Mouthing Behavior by Young Children; OFFICIAL JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS
5. Orlando Tanaka et al, Breaking the Thumb Sucking Habit: When Compliance Is Essential; The Journal Of Case Reports In Dentistry
6. Farah Abdulsatar et al, Teething necklaces and bracelets pose significant danger to infants and toddlers; Oxford Academic Paediatrics & Child Health