Is a child chewing on clothes symptomatic of something wrong?

Babies love to stick everything in sight into their mouths and chew on it when they’re teething or in the developmental stage where they mouth objects to learn what it is. But by age 3, children have usually outgrown this, and chewing on things they shouldn’t — like their clothing — becomes more of a mystery than babies’ clear developmental reasons.

If your 4-year-old (or older) is chewing on their shirt, there are many possible causes and motivations. Some may be easily fixed at home, and others may require a call to the pediatrician. Let’s figure out what’s going on.

Child playing with his jacket zipper
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Fidgeting

Some kids chew on a shirt as a fidgeting behavior. They want some sensory input, and the shirt they’re wearing is simply the easiest and closest thing to play with. Children fidget to help them pay attention because they’re anxious, bored, or other reasons similar to why adults sometimes fidget. Fidgeting can be a sign of ADHD or another condition, but it’s also very common and not an immediate cause for concern.

You can redirect a child who is chewing on their shirt out of boredom or to calm themselves or to help with attention by getting them a fidgeting toy to play with instead of their clothes. When you see them chewing, remind them to use their toy instead. “Chewelry” are wearable toys that can be chewed on so that it’s always with them (just like their clothes).

Boy chewing on his shirt collar
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Notice patterns

Is there a pattern behind when the chewing happens? If you can observe a pattern and figure it out on your own by noticing the time of day or feeling that always accompanies the chewing, you can solve the issue with a redirection or conversation:

  • If it’s always right before snack time, it could indicate hunger and can be stopped by giving a snack earlier.
  • If it’s always when they’re nervous or anxious, ask what’s wrong and try a breathing exercise.
  • If they’re trying to concentrate on homework, offer a fidget toy.
  • If it happens when they’re bored, give them an activity.

Stress is one of the most common causes of a child chewing on a shirt, so the behavior could be caused by a big change that’s worrying them, like starting a new school. If you child is chewing to self-soothe, you can work on finding another way to help them feel better about what’s concerning them.

It could also be purely out of habit at this point, like nail biting. If you notice the pattern of chewing happening when they’re bored and they just pick up their shirt collar or sleeve out of habit for something to do, a fidget toy or other redirection could help.

Mother and daughter talking
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Talk about it

Have a conversation with your child about the clothes-chewing to help figure out the reason. They may simply tell you they like the chewing feeling, and you can give them something else to chew on, like gum. Their answers could also help you figure out if chewing on clothes is a symptom of one of these conditions:

  • A dental issue where the child is chewing on what is available for pain relief
  • Weak jaw muscles where the child is naturally trying to strengthen them
  • Pica, a condition where people (especially children) eat non-food items
  • Anxiety, autism, ADHD, or a sensory disorder

If your conversation brings up any of these, talk to your pediatrician about your concerns and how to proceed. If you can’t figure out the reason using any of the methods above, it’s also best to call the pediatrician for their advice and perhaps a screening for any of the possible conditions mentioned.

In the end, chewing clothing can be caused by a diverse possibility of reasons that you’ll have to do some further detective work to figure out. It’s often about oral sensory input, which could be swapped out with chewelry, crunchy veggies, or gum, or an indication of anxiety or stress, which can be helped with a conversation and more resources if needed. By observing and talking with your child, you’ll be on your way to determining which of the possible causes is the one behind your child’s chewing habit — and then how to fix it.

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