As a curious new parent I wonder to myself, What the hell is that all about? Why the mouth? Often she will put something in her mouth and make a distorted face, obviously displeased at this object’s taste. Does this cause her to remove the object from her mouth? No. Seriously: what the hell is that all about? What purpose does it serve for her to cram everything into her mouth right away? I’m sure I did that as an infant, but at some point I grew out of it. So what is it serving my little one to engage the world in such a way? Here are some of the explanations I’ve come across in my research (twenty minutes on Google) and personal reflection (asking the question in my head, “What the hell?”).
· It’s the easiest place for her to put things. Her mouth is a large, stable laboratory for exploring the world. Apparently, there are more nerve endings in an infant’s mouth than there are anywhere else on her body, or so some doctor said on some babyanswers.com type website. Whether that’s true, it does make sense that this is an easy way to explore the world. Her motor skills are improving, and she can definitely do more with her hands than she could even a month ago, but she still tends to fumble and drop most objects. Her curiosity about the world leads her to want to explore and examine objects, but if she tries to turn them over in her hands, she drops them. Her mouth, however, doesn’t require the same sophisticated motor skills to operate. It’s also bigger than her hands. So once she grasps an object, her mouth is a large target to transport this object for further reconnaissance.
· She’s learning to use her mouth. Just as she is practicing learning to use her hands by grabbing at items (primarily, it would seem, so she could get better at putting them in her mouth), she is also learning to use her tongue and jaws. Her mouth is performing pretty basic functions at the moment, but as she grows it will be expected to execute far more complex procedures. Chewing, for instance. Or talking. She is definitely vocalizing, but it takes a lot of coordination to form syllables and words, so vocalizing is not the only way she is learning to talk. Feeling her tongue on foreign objects and working her jaws up and down against the resistance of them is another way that she is learning how to use them.
· It helps with teething. She’s got six teeth now – three on the top and three on the bottom. This is not an easy or painless process, and chewing on things is both a natural relief and a way to explore these new tools she’s grown. Gnawing on pretty much anything hard or cold helps ease her gums as she cuts her teeth.
· It builds autoimmune resistance. Of course, there are a lot of dirty things that get shoved into her mouth. As parents, we try to keep her from chewing and sucking on disgusting things, but even the things that aren’t that dirty have dirt and dust and germs on them. Introducing all these tiny germs and dirts and such helps her body learn to tolerate a certain level of outside infection. Of course, plenty of it does make her sick; you can read my previous blog entry on how many colds and viruses have run through my house this winter. But her body is learning to defend itself against the mean germs and to tolerate and permit the mild germs. And the mouth is the quickest portal of entry.
· Her mouth is where she most experiences nurturance. This is the section on Freud and his concept of the “oral stage.” He connected the mouth to “libidinal gratification;” I’ll just call it nourishment and nurturance. My little girl’s first experience of “gratification” – experiencing a need and then having it met – was when she first ate after being born. A few hours after her eventful entry into this extra-uterine terrain, she ate her first meal at her mother’s breast. She used her mouth to satiate whatever hunger she was feeling. The first thing she learned to do was eat, and she uses her mouth for that. Connected with eating for an infant is the physical intimacy, warmth, and closeness to her mother. Freud talked about the pleasure principle and the id’s derivation of pleasure from oral exploration; Winnicott and the object-relations theorists talk about the breast as the first “good object” that represents positive relations with other people. Whatever school of psychotherapy you want to claim, an infant really does first encounter the world through her mouth. It’s the go-to organ for having her needs met: eating, suckling, being close to a loving and nurturing parent.
It’s sometimes very cute to watch her engage the world through this oral processing: how she will pull her socks off her feet, stuff them in her mouth, and proceed to crawl across the floor with a sock hanging from her jaws like a lioness carrying prey to her cubs. It’s also alarming at times, like when she tried to chew on a brittle dried leaf she picked up off the ground. But I can’t help but admire the kind of innocent openness it represents. So much of what she wants to stick in her mouth causes me and her mother to balk. “Eww,” her mother routinely emotes whenever our little girl opens her maw to suck on something gross. But there is something endearing and a little inspiring about the image of opening herself up, of allowing her curiosity to vulnerably lead her in engaging the world. Opening ourselves to the world is where we find gratification and pleasure, how we learn about ourselves and the environment around us, and how we grow stronger and surer of ourselves. I hope I can allow myself to open up a little more to the world around me and learn something new. So don’t be surprised if you find me in my office barefoot with a sock in my mouth.