Is chewing really a problem, a sensory disorder, a nervous habit, an oral fixation, or a sign of "special needs"? Perhaps. Children chew for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the label used, chewing fingernails, hair, clothing, or anything else does communicate a need. However, the child may or may not consciously recognize the nature of the need. This is where parents and caregivers can help.
Perhaps when the child feels anxious or bored, he or she reaches for a treatment reliably near at hand, i.e., fingernails, hair, or clothing. Young children who used a pacifier or sucked a thumb, especially beyond babyhood, may hold on to the habit of self-soothing and relieving stress with chewable objects.
Is Chewing Really a Problem in Children?
Does the child have uncomfortably dry lips, ruined clothing, or ragged fingertips? Does the child feel embarrassed by the chewing habit? Does the chewing behavior get worse in certain situations?
Some kids feel anxious when surrounded by bright lights, lots of movement, noise, or difficult social expectations. Some kids have high physical activity needs and thus have trouble sitting through lengthy structured activities such as school classes. Such a child might turn to chewing in order to satisfy a need for involved, purposeful movement.
Based on the assumption that a child uses the chewing behavior in an attempt to meet a need ( i.e., to soothe anxiety or to occupy in times of boredom), the parent or caregiver can help the child identify the need and redirect to a more positive, comfortable solution.
Does the Child Want to Stop Chewing?
A chewing habit may effect a child's self-esteem, because it separates the child from kids who don't chew and contributes to dry lips, sore jaws, and damaged hair, nails, and clothing. Chewing can also contribute to increased germ exposure and infection.
Look for practical solutions. In cases of chewing on hair, cut or tie back the child's hair. Substitute a chewing cloth or bracelet to satisfy the child's urge to chew to cure boredom or soothe anxiety. When the hair is tied back, some children may switch to chewing fingernails or clothing in lieu of the hair, indicating a deeper issue.
Identify and minimize causes of anxiety, tension, and fear in the child's life. Daily tensions can manifest as chewing or sucking on fingers, nails, hands, hair, clothing, etc.
Could Chewing Indicate a Sensory Disorder?
A Sensory Integration Disorder indicating hyposensitivity (reduced sensitivity) to sensory stimuli could manifest as excessive sucking and chewing on things. However, in this case chewing would be accompanied by other symptoms such as obvious sensory impairment and excessive attempts to fully taste, touch, smell, etc.
Children chew for a variety of reasons, including attempts to cure boredom or reduce tension. Chewing may or may not present a problem. It depends on whether or not the child wishes to stop or suffers other mal-effects because of the chewing habit.