Why Is My Child Chewing on Their Shirt?

Boy chewing on shirt

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You probably remember your baby’s oral stage, when they seemed to put everything they got their little hands on into their mouth. Infants do this when teething or to learn about the world around them. But what's going on when a preschooler or school-age child sucks or chews on their shirt or other clothing items?

Sometimes, an older child will develop a habit of putting the neckline, cuff, or hem of their shirt into their mouth. They may chew or suck on the material to the point it develops holes or wears thin. You might worry this behavior will draw criticism from peers and teachers or that it's associated with certain mental health or developmental problems. Let’s take a closer look at why your child is chewing on their clothes and how you can help them break the habit.

Why Do Kids Chew on Their Shirts?

Oral stimulation plays an important role in your child’s development. “Oral motor seeking is rooted in our most basic methods of self-regulation or calming,” says Monal Patel, MS, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Blue Bird Day Program in Chicago, IL. “From infancy to toddlerhood, a child utilizes a rooting reflex to fulfill the basic needs of hunger and thirst. Later, they may use that sucking and rooting pattern to soothe themselves, most often in the form of pacifiers and thumb sucking."

Beyond the toddler years, some kids may still seek to stimulate their mouths and jaws. This is known in the occupational therapy world as proprioceptive input. "This deep pressure can be soothing to children as they seek ways to calm themselves that are self-directed and predictable,” says Patel. A child who self-soothes in this way may chew on their shirt because it's readily accessible.

When to Worry About Shirt Chewing

Just because this is a natural and deeply rooted behavior doesn’t mean it should be ignored as your child ages. “By age three, kids usually stop putting things in their mouths and exploring things this way,” says Laura Grashow, PsyD, a licensed pediatric clinical psychologist at the Child & Family Institute in Scarsdale, NY. "But I have seen fourth and fifth graders grab their shirt collars and put them in their mouths.”

Dr. Grashow says shirt chewing may just be a harmless way that your child seeks sensory input or calms and focuses themselves. (Think of how many grown-ups chew gum or bite their nails when they're nervous or concentrating.)

However, there are times when a child's shirt chewing can have a negative impact. “The most important distinction is to determine if sucking or chewing is hindering your child’s ability to participate in their daily routines or is posing a safety concern,” says Patel. For instance, if your child's chewing is destroying a school or sports uniform or is causing a choking hazard, you will want to intervene.

Laura Grashow, PsyD

In some cases, shirt chewing can be a sign of anxiety, ADHD, or a developmental issue, so it's a good idea to let a doctor know if it's a chronic habit your child has trouble controlling.

— Laura Grashow, PsyD

Talking to Your Child About Shirt Chewing

Dr. Grashow recommends talking to your child if you think their habit of sucking or chewing on clothing is problematic. What’s critical here is that you come from a non-judgmental stance. Your first goal should be to learn if your child is aware of it and if there are patterns to the chewing.   

You don’t want to make your child feel embarrassed about their behavior or ashamed for destroying their clothes. “A child can internalize that and think, ‘I’m a bad person and a slob who makes a mess of things.' You don’t want them to incorporate that into their self-image,” says Dr. Grashow.

Instead, try a gentle, exploratory approach. "You can say, 'I’ve noticed that you sometimes chew on your shirt. Why do you think you do it? What does it help you with?'" advises Dr. Grashow. Kids may not be in touch with the habit and become more aware of it once you call it to their attention.

If your child is aware they are chewing on their shirt, ask them if they feel OK doing it in front of classmates. You might also check with your child’s teacher or caregivers to see if they notice any patterns and whether any teasing is occurring. This will help you understand if the behavior is having an impact on your child’s social life.

How to Stop Your Child From Chewing on Their Shirt

You may decide that your child's habit of sucking or chewing on their shirt is a passing phase and not a big deal. However, if the behavior is bothering them or negatively impacting their daily life, there are ways to help them kick the habit.

Recognize Triggers

There may be patterns to your child's chewing. Do they tend to do it before snack time when they may be hungry? Is it when they’re concentrating on schoolwork or a puzzle? Is it before recess or a play date when they might be nervous about social interaction?

If you learn that your child's chewing has common triggers, you may be able to nip the behavior in the bud. For instance, if they tend to chew when they are hungry, you can make healthy snacks readily available to them. If it happens when they are nervous, you can help them develop other stress-management techniques, like belly breathing.

Give Them Alternatives

A child who chews on their shirt is seeking oral stimulation, so offer them products made for just this situation. There are soft, safe chewable necklaces that a child can chomp on, including some shaped like shark’s teeth or beads.

Often, keeping a child’s hands busy can play a role in minimizing shirt chewing, says Dr. Grashow. You can try offering your child a small paintbrush or a fidget toy to occupy them and distract them from reflexively putting their shirt in their mouth.

Consult With a Professional

If you're worried about shirt chewing, Dr. Grashow advises that you talk first with a knowledgeable developmental pediatrician. “They are really tuned into child development and will cover all the bases,” she says. “They will look for difficulty with focus or attention, how well your child relates to others, a history of developmental or language delays, and anxiety levels.”

If your child is ingesting non-edible items while engaging in their chewing behavior, the doctor may also want to do a nutritional screening to make sure there hasn’t been any impact on their wellness, adds Patel.

The pediatrician might refer you to a specialist. A psychologist can help if anxiety seems to be an underlying issue. An occupational therapist (OT) can help address your child's proprioceptive needs with tools such as chewable jewelry or oral motor exercises. Finally, a dentist or orthodontist may do an evaluation to see if there is a physical cause for the behavior, like a sore area in the mouth that's soothed by chewing or sucking.

A Word From Verywell

It's not uncommon for kids to go through stages when they suck or chew on clothing beyond the toddler years. In many cases, it's a way for a child to seek sensory stimulation or comfort when they're a little stressed. Usually, it's a passing phase that doesn't do much damage beyond some stretched-out shirt collars or frayed cuffs.

However, there are times when shirt chewing can be concerning. It's worth investigating with your child and perhaps a doctor why this has become a habit and what seems to trigger it. With information on why your child is engaging in this behavior and an empathetic approach to exploring alternatives, you can help your child move past this habit while preserving their self-esteem.

By Janet Siroto
Janet Siroto is a writer and content strategist specializing in wellness and lifestyle topics. She's held senior editorial positions at Good Housekeeping, Family Life, and other titles.