Yuck! My baby won't stop licking the floor and putting dirty toys in her mouth, should I be worried?

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Make sure that everything that goes to your child's mouth is clean and germ-free.
Make sure that everything that goes to your child's mouth is clean and germ-free.

When your little angel starts crawling and moving around the house, what comes with it something most mothers dread… Baby starts picking things up off the floor and taking them straight to her mouth.

While this time may feel very unhygienic and like it should be avoided, occupational therapist Bridget Hartley, who's also one of the experts working with the sensory-motor programme Clamber Club, says it's an important and desirable stage of development for every child.

Bridget, who has her practice in George in the Western Cape, says as babies grow, they start to gain active arm control (usually within the first three months), which allows them to get their hands and fingers in their mouth and a little later, even their feet!

"A multitude of receptors, or sensors, in the mouth, provide vital information about a toy or object at this point," says Bridget.

She says mouthing provides a means of discovering taste, smell, texture, size and shape, all of which stimulate the sensory tolerance and contribute to the oral-motor control needed for healthy feeding and later on for forming sounds and words.

Often, babies have a wonderful time exploring "yucky" things, picking up dusty toys, licking the floor, sucking on grubby clothes.

"And as soon as they are able, they touch one another’s faces, kiss with mouths open, and share what they are mouthing indiscriminately. This provides sensory-rich stimulation and is certainly normal behaviour at that age," she says.

"The way you were brought up, plus your ideas and sensory-system sensitivities, determine what you will consider dirty or off-putting for your child to mouth."

Germs and illness

Germs causing illness only come via other children who're sick, which is when it's a good idea to avoid physical contact or shared toys that may be mouthed. Teething, says Bridget, is another reason for excessive mouthing and increased drooling.

"Anytime between three and seven months, the baby may start to have excessive mouthing or increased drooling. This is a sign that the first tooth is ready to surface," she adds.

According to Bridget, increased sucking and chewing is designed to relieve this discomfort, and it's especially beneficial to provide cold teething rings for red, hot and swollen gums.

Other ways of exploring

Read: 'Sterilise everything that they might put in their mouths': Germ truths for new parents

Bridget says babies can also suck their fingers to communicate they are hungry or even that they are bored.

From six months onwards, babies also start to develop a better perception in their hands and fingers, and so slowly start replacing their mouths with touching, feeling, banging and poking. By the age of three years, mouthing diminishes markedly and typically disappears completely around four years of age.

"Mouthing is their best way of exploring and matching what they are seeing, feeling and hearing," she explains.

"Babies who don't mouth toys may have oral-tactile sensitivity and also be fussy feeders. If you do notice this, encourage mouthing when your baby makes any attempt to do so."

She advises using your finger to provide that gentle deep pressure on their gums. "This can be useful to desensitise their mouths and be willing to tolerate more in their mouths," she says.

Also read: Squeaky clean: How to sterilise baby bottles, and when to stop

Extended mouthing

Sometimes mouthing can last longer than expected. This could be due to a baby's sensory system needing extra input because the signals – texture, taste, temperature – from their touch and body sense systems are not yet clear.

"Since the mouth provides the most accurate input, toddlers and preschoolers continue to use this channel to gain information about toys and objects they are wanting to explore," Bridget explains.

A motor planning challenge is also another possibility for lingering mouthing since the underlying body senses are not providing enough input for your toddler to come up with new and different strategies for physically handling their toys.

"Cognitive difficulties might also mean that toddlers do not move on to using their hands more actively at this time, since their 'thinking' brain is taking longer to develop," she explains.

Extra mouthing might also indicate a predominant need for self-soothing to cope with too much touch, movement or sound from the environment.

Self-soothing

Sucking (mouthing and later chewing) provides deep touch pressure in the mouth and through the jaw, which calms your baby and can be used for falling asleep.

Sucking

This is the earliest strategy your baby uses for soothing themselves and lays a good foundation for being able to keep things on an even keel as they grow older.

"This can re-emerge at any time of stress and often continues in the form of needing their dummy or thumb beyond the four-year mark, chewing of clothes, biting their hands or nails, and wanting to eat, chew or suck more often than needed," Bridget says.

If you are concerned about any of the above, get help from a professional. And last, she adds, knows that babies respond actively to their parents' encouragement and are also aware of their disapproval.

"Stay aware of your reactions when guiding them. Revel in this short but very meaningful stage in your little one's development."

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