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For the past 6 weeks or so, our 9-month-old son has been in the habit of sticking a finger far into his mouth; to the point where he coughs; and sometimes throws up as a result.

If we are next to him when he does it, we physically remove his hand from his mouth. We have also tried lightly tapping/slapping his hand when he does it, and telling him "No" firmly.

Related information; he has 2 teeth that have come pretty far in; no others yet. He eats very well and eats a lot.

Is this a common occurrence; and what techniques can we use to help prevent it from happening? The primary goal is to stop him from choking or throwing up.

  • 1
    a perfectly normal part of baby development is that of putting EVERYTHING in their mouth. The mouth is most sensitive nerve set and gives the richest feedback of all their body sensory parts (it gives taste, texture, smell and temperature feedback) so a lot of a baby's learning around the world around it come from putting things in their mouth. I'd genuinely make a concerted effort to ignore the behaviour; at 9 months there's no intention, he's not a developing bulimic, and any reaction only draws attention to it. "everything is a phase" - it'll be something else in 2 weeks – Caius Jard Sep 5 at 19:37
  • I have also heard it said (but didn't include in the answer because I can't find a reliable source or citation for it), that some babies 'play with' the gag reflex as part of learning to eat solid foods, testing/learning the boundaries of their body's ability or even naturally desensitizing the gag reflex, which is an important part of learning to each foods of varied texture. – Meg Sep 5 at 19:47
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This weird stage is really common, and mostly developmental-- something that most babies will naturally outgrow. It's upsetting and gross, but not harmful. The baby won't actually choke or cause injury by occasionally over inserting fingers in the mouth.

My son did it for a couple weeks at about that age, and it's recently had a brief resurgence (age 2). Some reasons that babies/toddlers do this:

  • Trying out something new. They have discovered a new sensation and a new thing their body can do. Some kids are determined to investigate any new discovery fully, even if it's somewhat unpleasant for them. (Teeth grinding is another common example of this). Some kids oddly enough seem to find the dramatic reaction of their own bodies, and any nearby adults, hilarious.

  • Getting a reaction. "When I do this, parents look panicked and drop whatever they're doing to rush right over!" This can be either an attention-getting technique, or just an experiment with cause and effect, an extension of 'trying out something new'. A nine month old can't actively/maliciously manipulate, but can notice 'when I do this, something that I like happens, I should do this more'. If is common for gagging to increase when the baby is bored or asking for attention when you are unable to provide it.

  • Teething. Chewing on hands is a classic teething sign, and it's definitely possible for a kid to overdo it and gag themselves. If back teeth are coming in, and it's not impossible that the 1-year molars are already starting to move, then pain relief or cold teethers with a good shape to reach the back teeth without gagging might solve the issue.

  • Rarely, it can be related to silent reflux, chronic nausea, food allergy or other digestive and stomach disorders. Even a baby can make the connection that the upset stomach feels better after vomiting, and may make a habit of it after accidentally discovering the connection. This is much less often seen than the other possibilities, but since it's been going on somewhat longer than a usual baby phase, may be worth considering.

If it's purely behavioral, you will probably have best results with just redirecting, and trying not to give a horrified or dramatic (and thus rewarding) reaction. Keep your little one's hands busy with teethers, toys and other things that are safe to put in the mouth (and preferably don't have the shape that allows them to gag themselves with the toy. I had to remove a long-legged giraffe shape teether from my son for exactly this reason). Try not to respond to the coughing with a lot of sudden concentrated attention or panic, which are interesting and rewarding to a baby. Make sure your baby is getting plenty of focused, playful attention, and encourage babbling and calling to you (vs acting out, screaming or coughing) as a way to engage you.

Punishment like slapping is not appropriate for a baby so young, as even if they learn that something isn't good to do or desirable, they don't really have the planning ahead and impulse control ability to actually not do the thing. You are better off just preventing the behavior, reducing how rewarding or entertaining it is, and waiting for him to outgrow it.

  • 5
    Wish I could upvote this 10 times! – anongoodnurse Sep 5 at 22:03
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    @anongoodnurse that's the concept behind bounty, isn't it? :p – Thomas Ayoub Sep 6 at 7:20
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    @LuciaBentivoglio I honestly think at 20 years old it's really your sons own business where he puts his fingers. – Cubic Sep 6 at 8:00
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    @Cubic I expect Lucia meant 20 months :) – Luaan Sep 6 at 9:58
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    @Akhoy Don't think that's a great idea. Those fingers are likely to also end up in his eyes and any amount of chilli powder that will be annoying orally will be very annoying when gotten in the eyes I would guess. – DRF Sep 6 at 16:15
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One of my nephews used to do that, more because he loved the way everybody paid attention to him when he did it than because he thought it was fun to choke himself :( Distraction was the key to eliminating the behavior. Teach him that he can get attention with other behaviors.

Putting something interesting in his hands will give him something else to focus on. Play patty-cakes with him. Engage him. And try to detect if there are other behaviors which precede the finger-down-the-throat. He might be signaling to you that he wants attention, but the signs are not noticed or are ignored. This may be causing him to escalate. Don't worry about "spoiling" him; a child that young is almost entirely dependent on you for his mental stimulation. It is natural for him to crave as much as he can get.

If that doesn't do the trick, you might want to ask his physician about it. It is possible that there is a physical discomfort that is at the root, and not just boredom.

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