Why Kids Pick Their Noses and Lick Their Shoes

Kids pick their noses. Gross. But is it harmless?

Anyone around children long enough will observe them picking their noses. Many of us also witness that extra step; they eat whatever comes out! The name for this practice is Mucophagy. Some argue that children who engage in this behavior have stronger immune systems as a result. Those that study this topic typically tend to support this behavior and practice it themselves.

Mucophagy and the immune system

Although very few studies have been done on the topic and no scientific evidence has been proven, some believe Mucophagy makes children healthier. Scott Napper, a professor of biochemistry, Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, and Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University took to the internet to bring attention to this taboo habit. Napper believes that someone’s nose contents are specific to that person and environment. Eating it sends specific information to the body informing it to increase or stabilize the immune system. Bischinger argues that the immune system is strengthened by the harboring of mucus that is swallowed and therefore calls for the system to build antibodies. Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, Dr. William Schaffner makes a different point. He feels that since we swallow mucus all the time, picking dried mucus and eating boogers would be no different.

Licking shoes and other objects

While experts take Mucophagy lightly, licking the bottom of shoes and other dirty objects are a sign of a more serious deficiency. If a parent observes this behavior, they should not brush off this habit as just another quirky behavior. Licking shoes, people, pets, and other non-food items could be an indication of an underlying medical problem. Be sure to contact your child’s pediatrician if you notice concerning licking behaviors.

The top 4 medical issues associated with licking behaviors: 

1. Pica: Compulsive cravings to eat or lick non-food items is a main characteristic of pica. Although pica can be caused by a variety of conditions, vitamin and nutritional deficiencies are listed as the most common causes.

2. Vitamin deficiencies: When a child’s body is not getting enough of a particular vitamin or mineral, the deficiency can prevent the body from functioning normally. As a result, a person may have intense desires to engage in “strange” behavior, like licking shoes. While licking is one sign of a vitamin deficiency, it could also be the symptom of another medical issue.

3. Autism: Licking behaviors linked with autism are referred to as “stims” or self stimulating behavior. According to a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 95% of children with autism struggle with processing sensory information, a condition also known as Sensory Integration Disorder or Sensory Processing Disorder. Kids lick shoes to gather information about the object that they are licking. 

4. Sensory Integration Disorder: In this case, a child has difficulty taking in or interpreting input through sights, sounds, touch, tastes, smells, movement and balance, body position and muscle control. They seek to balance it out through many behaviors including licking. Sensory Processing Disorder is the name used to describe the symptoms in hopes of making it a universally accepted medical diagnosis. Although some therapists provide sessions to address this sensory issue, it is still in the process of becoming widely accepted and treated by all medical professionals. For more information about the disorder, click here.

Relax! It may not be so bad after all!

It is typical for some toddlers to go through a stage where they lick and put everything in their mouth. However, if it goes beyond the age of 2, you may want to seek the opinion of your child’s pediatrician. He/she will refer you to have an assessment done by an occupational therapist who will help address the behavior. Depending on the cause and amount of intervention, children can and do grow out of this.

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