I've always been vaguely aware that most small children put things into their mouths. For years, my mother reminded me that as a toddler I loved to chew on cigarette butts I found at the park, yet despite this knowledge, it still came as a shock to discover with my own children just how much time I'd spend trying to prevent them from eating the inedible. Even more shocking is the list of hazardous items they've managed to get into their mouths to date, despite my vigilance—a list including such delicacies as hair clips, staples, and even broken glass.
What Is Mouthing?
There is some comfort in knowing I'm not the only parent fighting this battle. "Mouthing behavior is a normal part of development for young children," according to Dr. Kimberly Thompson, MD, a Harvard professor and director of the Kids Risk Project. "It's one of the ways that children explore their environments. Studies show that children put an enormous range of objects into their mouths ... but some children show very little mouthing behavior and others a lot."
Children typically mouth the most between birth and 18 months, while they're teething but before they have the mobility for most other forms of exploration. However, some children will continue mouthing through the toddler years and beyond. Research shows that the average child under the age of three only mouths for about 30 minutes a day, but since there's no way to predict which 30 minutes those are going to be, parents constantly need to be on their guard.
What Are the Dangers?
Potential dangers associated with mouthing range from the minor, such as exposure to germs, to the serious and even deadly. The more extreme risks include poisoning from ingesting something toxic and internal injury caused by swallowing small items (especially magnets). But the biggest danger is choking. According to Safe Kids Worldwide, airway obstruction is a major cause of death for kids under the age of four and the number one cause for kids younger than one.
Kelly Smith, owner of Totsafe, a Michigan-based babyproofing company, has talked to hundreds of parents about the dangers of choking and finds that many are not familiar with the full list of items that pose risks. "Everyday items including pen caps, coins, the rubber cap on the bottom of the toilet, rubber tips from door stoppers, and even balloons are choking risks to children," says Smith. "They are small items, but they are deadly."
How Can You Protect Your Child?
When it comes to mouthing, exposure to germs is probably the easiest risk to mitigate. To help keep your baby healthy, be sure that any items that he likes to mouth or that he shares with other children are regularly cleaned and disinfected.
In terms of the more serious mouthing hazards, experts agree that the single biggest factor in keeping children safe is adult supervision—but any parent will tell you that it just isn't possible to watch children every second. (It's nice to occasionally brush your teeth or grab a bagel, after all.) So the second most important thing you can do is childproof your home and other places your baby regularly visits.
As a general rule, a young child should not have access to any non-food items smaller than the size of his fist. Small objects aren't the only dangers though. You should also remove larger items that your child may be able to bite into, such as plants, books, and older kids' toys that have small parts.