We all know that young children love to put all sorts of things in their mouths, and sucking or chewing their own hair is a common comfort habit, like thumb-sucking, which many kids adopt for a time, before naturally growing out of it.
There are many reasons as to why kids do this, but it’s a completely natural instinct to seek comfort or stress relief by putting things in the mouth. If babies didn’t have that urge they wouldn’t start to feed, and the psychologist Sigmund Freud developed a whole theory based around ‘oral fixation’. Compulsive hair-chewing and swallowing has the medical name trichophagia, and though the act itself needn’t be harmful or the symptom of a deeper psychological disorder, it does carry some genuine risks.
Hair can be home to all sorts of germs and bacteria picked up in the atmosphere and, if kids are older and using hair-care products, it can carry the residue of hairspray or shampoo. Hair can also harbour nits and lice, fungal infections, and other toxins released from the body.
But the most serious danger for kids who actually swallow their own hair is that it builds up in the stomach, forming a hairball like those found in cats. In 1999 there was a reported case of a 17-year old UK girl who died as the result of an accumulation of her own chewed-up hair in her stomach.
Persuading kids out of bad habits like hair-chewing can be a tricky, delicate, long-term task. If they are still young try providing them with a substitute like a teddy. Praise them when they seem to be making progress, and comfort, rather than scold, them if they struggle. Gentle yet firm persuasion is likely to be more effective than force or threats. If they are older, and particular situations seem to trigger hair-chewing, talk to them directly about why they want to do it, and explain why it’s not just a bad habit, but a potentially dangerous one too. Your paediatrician can provide more help and advice on how to deal with this sort of persistent, compulsive behaviour.
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