Babbling loudly, burping while making direct eye contact, putting their feet in their mouth: I’m either talking about the rudest adult you know or the cutest baby. But why do babies put their toes in their mouths? The burping and the babbling make sense, but babies have a lot of strange tendencies that wouldn't fly in adulthood, and believe it or not, many of these seemingly bizarre behaviors actually serve a purpose... and that's true of toe-nibbling, too.
“One of the primary ways babies learn is with their mouths, as a way to experience different tastes and sensations,” Elisabeth Oxenrider, Neonatal Nurse Practitioner at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, California tells Romper. “As they develop more control over their body and have the ability to bring their feet to their mouth, and realize they’ve discovered something new and exciting, the best way for them to learn about it is to put it in their mouth. For some babies, the act of sucking on their feet [or] toes may be soothing. For others it is a fun form of play.”
Beyond just taste buds, the mouth is full of nerve endings which carry sensory information to the brain, according to 2017 study published in Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders. When children put their hands, their feet, or even something like a small toy into their mouth (cue panic) they are actually trying to figure out how the object in question feels. Toes are a readily available toy that’s never far away, and sometimes they're the only option for a non-mobile baby.
Babies are also super flexible because their bones are made largely of cartilage that hasn’t yet fully calcified, per Kids Health. Basically, it’s not uncomfortable for their feet to reach their mouths, and for the sake of reporting, I just tried to reach my own foot close to my mouth, and no amount of yoga is going to allow that to happen. Anyhoo. Toes go into their mouths because it’s easy and natural to do so, which can be hard for adults to conceptualize.
“Simply put, babies put their feet in their mouths because they can,” Ben Hoffman, M.D., pediatrician at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital tells Romper. “By 3 months or so, most babies can purposefully get their hands in their mouths, and a big part of the way that babies explore the world is with their mouths. Once the hands can get there, everything goes in the mouth. Sometime between 3 and 6 months, most babies will 'find' their feet, and because they are very, very flexible, they can, and will, put their feet in their mouths as part of their exploration.”
It’s possible that by experiencing non-liquid textures when “tasting” their hands or feet, babies are becoming acclimated with solids that will prepare them for eating food. By 24 months, they should have a firm understanding that only food items go in their mouths.
It may seem gross to watch your child gnaw on their tootsies, but keep in mind that their feet are far less dirty than yours would be (no judgment). “Parents may worry about germs when their baby sucks on toes, but most babies have relatively clean feet until they begin walking. They’ll soon begin to remove socks, then shoes, which are important developmental milestones. Allowing baby plenty of tummy time on the floor will encourage the development of all the important milestones we look for as parents and providers,” Oxenrider says.
If you really can’t stand the idea, give your little ones’ feet a little rinse, then let them go to town. After all, this behavior will only be physically possible for so long (take it from me) and you wouldn’t want to yuck their yum, even if it's toes.