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Exploring the world through the mouth of babes

Updated on April 16, 2009

Why do they constantly put things in their mouth?

During the first 18months of age, babies explore the world by using their senses...mostly their mouths. 

Sigmund Freud described this as the oral phase of development, one of 5 psychosexual developmental stages.  Freud's explanation of this phase states that as an infant is born, its first instinct is to suckle milk.  This is nuturing and provides the baby with stability and the sucking reflex is explored and extended.  It has been found that infants still in utero will explore with sucking their thumbs. 

In later years, this theory has been expanded on.  Oral exploration is still considered a very important stage in an infants life.  The child is exploring the taste and texture of different items in her mouth. This may be a sign that the child is beginning to work on teeth just below the surface.  Teething usually begins about 6 or 7 months but can occur in babies as young as 3months.  Rubbing textured things against the gums can help ease any discomfort from the teething process. This exploration can also be a sign that your infant is ready for solids. 

Piaget approached baby development later than Freud.  He stated that in the first cognetive stage, children learn by senses and physical exploration of their environment.  This is the sensorimotor stage of development.  If you were to sit and watch several infants exploring toys, you would be able to see just how much they take in.  They explore with all their senses.  They are trying to make an understanding of their world and are very limited in doing so, so they explore with skills readily avaliable to them.  Using their eyes to determine the shape and colour, their hands to determine the weight and shape, their ears to determine any cause and effect of sound and their mouths to determine texture and taste.  As they get older and begin to develop more of an understanding of smell, they explore with that, too.

Piaget extended the understanding of this stage by breaking it up in to 6 substages.  The substages are:

Reflexes (0-1 month): During this stage the infant understands the world purely by newborn reflexes, sucking and looking.

Primary Circular Reactions (1-4 months): This stage the infant explores through sensation, often repeating actions several times.

Secondary Circular Reactions (4-8 months): During this stage the child explores cause and effect intentionally.  For instance, picking up a toy and putting it in their mouth, tasting it and feeling the textures.

Co-ordination of Reactions (8-12 months): The child extends on cause and effect, mimicing others and recognizing the effect of shaking a rattle produces sound.

Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months): This is a trial and error stage where the toddler approaches working theories of ideas and experiments with them further.  This is also the stage where the child extends on attention seeking behaviour, practicing ways of getting attention from their carers.  Children also develop language skills and understanding of communication during this stage and will readily recall routine events.

Early Representational Thought (18-24 months): This is the final sensorimotor substage.  It means the child has progressed further than actions and is mentally making decisions and connections to the real world.

It is a developmental stage which allows the child to explore their world and try to make sense of a very confusing place.


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    • Chatzed profile image

      Chatzed 6 years ago

      Can you tell me more about the 3 year old in question? It is not always a developmental delay. Some children continue behaviours as a way of learning and discovering or even as a form of comfort to them. Children are always learning, through every second of the day something new and exciting happens for a child. They are making connections very quickly and mouthing things is just another way of discovering about the world, sometimes through taste or even through the feel which some children prefer to use their mouth to 'feel' the object in question.

      If you have concerns, there are things like autism that cause children to repeat certain behaviours and they often regress around the age of 2. I have taught a child with Autism and I loved him to bits. He had such an awesome personality and gave everything a go. Anyway, if you would like more information please don't hesitate to ask :)

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      rowe 6 years ago

      so what does it exactly means when a 3years old child puts things in his/her mouth? is it developmental delay?