As any parent who’s ever found their baby's shirt drenched with drool knows, babies will put anything in their mouths, including their sleeves. It can’t be super comfy to have soggy fabric around their wrists, so why do babies chew on their sleeves? There has to be more to it than a secret desire to make their cuffs look all tattered and moth-eaten.
“Babies use all of their senses to explore their world. This includes tastes and tactile experiences using their mouths,” pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert tells Romper. Mouth and chewing behavior is common between the ages of 4-15 months while children are teething, pediatrician Dr. David Hill agrees.
“The mouth is incredibly sensitive, and putting things in their mouths is one way they learn about their worlds (an important reason to ensure that possible choking hazards are always out of reach). Sleeves, being conveniently positioned near hands, are readily available for babies to explore with their mouths,” Dr. Hill tells Romper in an email.
Because long-sleeves are regularly present and so easily available (hands end up in babies mouths a lot, for the same reason, as do their feet) it makes sense that sleeves would get their fair share of chewing, or more precisely, gumming, if your baby doesn't yet have teeth.
There's nothing abnormal about this behavior in babies and it's generally pretty harmless (more on when it's something to be wary of later), which is good because it's really hard to stop a baby from chewing on their clothes. It's unlikely that baby clothes would have anything dangerous on the sleeves, but it's still a good idea to "inspect clothing carefully for beads, sequins, and other attachments that might fall off and present a choking hazard," says Dr. Hill. "Stuffed animals and decorative blankets deserve the same attention."
You do want to take inventory of their clothes every once and a while and not only because they're growing out of them, but to make sure none of the sleeves are frayed or holey. "When a baby chews on his sleeve, small fibers may come loose and dyes can be released from the fabrics they're chewing on," pediatrician Dr. Whitney Casares tells Romper. Organic fabrics free of dye can be a good choice if your baby just won't leave their shirts alone, and if you do notice any runny dye, or the clothes are getting ruined from the constant stream of drool, Dr. Casares says you can offer a PVC-free teething ring or chew toy instead.
Mouthing non-food items is, simply put, soothing for kids. Most children will stop chewing on their sleeves by the age of 3. "By this age, kids have less interest in exploring the world with their mouths and choose to use their hands to explore new things. However, kids may still use clothing or non-food items to soothe themselves to sleep for many years," Dr. Burgert tells Romper. These non-food items may include "sensory-seeking behaviors" like sucking on fingers or thumbs, rubbing an earlobe, or rocking, Dr. Casares says.
Older kids may still chew on their sleeves or even their necklines during times of stress or anxiety, but if you notice this behavior happening frequently, Dr. Burgert says parents can gently yet persistently redirect the chewing habit to a more "socially normative" (and less destroyable) item like rubbing worry rocks or even chewing on a silicone necklace designed for this (or even gum if you're comfortable with it). If it's something you're concerned about, you can always bring it up with your pediatrician, but as Dr. Burgert tells Romper, "most kids will stop this behavior on their own as they continue to grow," so you may need to give it a little time (and stock up on durable shirts in the meantime).
Dr. Natasha Burgert, pediatrician
Dr. Whitney Casares, pediatrician
Dr. David Hill, pediatrician