Chewing their clothes is not necessarily evidence of wilful damage or a lack of respect. For many children it is an exaggeration of a very natural way in which they regulate their nervous system. As such, it is better conceptualised as evidence of a nervous system under stress. It follows that the management of the behaviour is better targeted towards changing the child’s state as opposed to their attitude.
When children are born one of the first positive signs of life is a healthy wail. At this moment, the infant is overwhelmed by their change in circumstances. Ordinarily they are soon placed on their mother and encouraged to suckle. Skin to skin contact results in the release of a natural calm down chemical called oxytocin. As a result of being held to the mother’s breast and encouraged to suckle, there is a release of oxytocin and the infant is soothed. Whether they are breast- or bottle-fed thereafter, being held and fed is one of the first go-to strategies in the subsequent hours, days, and weeks when the infant is distressed, with the result that a powerful association is formed between having something in their mouth and the restoration of feelings of wellbeing. Later, the same result is observed with the use of teething rings, pacifiers, (comfort) food, tea, coffee, smoking, etc. To a greater or lesser extent, as a result of this process, we are all oral soothers. And the effect is so powerful that we adults can take rest breaks to drink tea and coffee, eat chocolate, or smoke; all of which have stimulant properties but are soothing nonetheless!
Chewing their clothes, nails, or anything else, really, can be a sign that your child needs help to calm. Telling them off for damaging their clothes or other items will only perpetuate the problem. Rather, offer them something else to suck or chew on, such as a healthy smoothie, ice block, or sugar-free lollypop. Have them drink from open cups through a straw, play relaxing classical music quietly in their their sleeping environment, or put on a fan where they sleep. Consult a paediatric occupational therapist who can assess for sensory issues and recommend a sensory diet. All of these strategies have been observed by me and the people I work with to help to calm the nervous system and satisfy the need that gives rise to the chewing. When the need is satisfied, the behaviour becomes redundant.
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