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Baby puts everything in her mouth — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have a delightful baby, almost 7 months old, who becomes a bawling mess if we take something away from her that doesn’t belong in her mouth. We have noticed that if we calmly explain, “Sweety, Daddy’s car keys aren’t for eating,” she seems merely disappointed. Are we expecting too much to think she can just accept the limits we impose on her without any explanations on our part or protest on hers? We both work full time and have no complaints from the child care center about her behavior. Is this one of those “She’s a baby” situations we just have to get used to? We are hoping that we can teach her right from wrong without a lot of drama.

Just Getting Started

Don’t miss last week’s column Using Time In instead of Time Out — Good Parenting

Dear JGS,

You are starting off with an admirable attitude. Good parenting reaps rewards for us all as a well-behaved child interacts with caregivers, playmates, classmates, teachers and others, and eventually enters adult society as a decent person. Your daughter’s take on right and wrong starts forming during her early years. Your reasonable and consistent limits are stored along neural pathways in her brain. Such neural networks shape her understanding of the world and influence her behavior. If the car keys are routinely steered away from her mouth, she may stop trying to eat them. Try a quick substitute — a clean, washable toy — so she has a positive pathway to follow the next time she wants something in her mouth.

Prevention is the best strategy for good discipline. Have only mouthable objects within her reach. Even if she somehow gets an inappropriate item in her grasp, it’s kinder to do a quick switch than to deny her of the object of her focus.

Mouthing objects is actually a vital activity in infancy for several known reasons:

1) Soothing
Infants are naturally soothed by sucking. Babies who are “self-soothers” (i.e. they use their own fingers) are often observed to be less fretful than those who prefer nursing, rocking, a pacifier or other means that may depend on a big person to help them. Around the age of 4 months, a child can control her hands enough to grab objects to suck on. At this point she may choose a corner of her blanket, or something else readily available to soothe herself when she needs it. When teeth start pushing under the gums, the pain is lessened by the opposing pressure of chewing on teething toys or other things.

2) Speaking and Eating
It actually takes quite a bit of coordination to perfect well-articulated speech. Speech therapists say we develop these motor skills in infancy, with plenty of practice using tongue, teeth and jaw action around all the things we put in our mouths as babies. These motor actions become automatic over the early years of acquiring expressive language skills. Similar coordination helps a baby learn to manage mushy, then chunky food. Interestingly, the gag reflex is super-operational at birth such that anything other than liquid will be thrust out if it touches anywhere on the back three-fourths of the tongue. Later on, this gag territory shrinks to a fourth of the back of the tongue.

3) Learning
Nerve endings in the mouth are stronger than any other area of the body for about the first 18 months of life. This is probably nature’s way of insuring that babies enjoy food, which is necessary for survival. Besides food, infants enjoy putting just about anything else in their mouths as well. Your daughter is learning a lot about texture, contours, temperature, size, and shape and the wide variety of “tastes” of metal, wood, paper, leather, cotton fabric, plastic, sand, etc.as pieces of the physical world send their various impressions through nerve impulses to the brain. At around 18 months, the palms and fingertips take over as the most sensitive regions for input to the brain, which is why toddlers enjoy using their hands to make mush of their food, to poke and mash play dough, and they’ll spend inordinate amounts of time at the sink.

4) Immunity
Recent research is affirming the “let ’em play in the dirt” approach to childhood. If environments are overly sanitized, some studies suggest children’s immune systems don’t get much practice in fighting germs. This means that you needn’t fret about the stray bacterium that find their way into your daughter’s body. Besides, it’s usually too late anyway if she has already managed a lick by the time you notice.

So, “right from wrong” seems to be on her side on this issue. Just be sure that you have lots of “right” things around for her to enjoy!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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