Fascination with bodily fluids and functions is a phase many children go through. Thumb-sucking, nose-picking and nail-biting all are common behaviors in young children. A child with special needs may continue playing with spit beyond a young age as a compulsive behavior. In the long term, this behavior carries hygiene risks and creates problems with socialization. Consult your doctor for medical advice regarding compulsive behavior management.
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Assess the function of your child's behavior. Behaviors such as thumb-sucking or playing with spit in the hand often stem from a need for sensory stimulation. Although you might find it repulsive, the feel of her spit may be stimulating or comforting to your child. Children with developmental disabilities such as autism commonly perform compulsive behaviors as a form of self-stimulation. Alternatively, she may be playing with her spit as a form of attention-seeking, if this behavior draws comment and criticism -- known as negative reinforcement -- from adults and caregivers.
Provide a rich sensory diet for your child on a regular basis. If his spit-playing behavior is sensory-seeking, provide other sensory experiences throughout the day. Get a variety of water toys for him to use in the bath, have Play-Doh and squishy toys to hand him throughout the day, play patty-cake or play with sand, flavored gelatin or beans. Massages or tickles are good forms of sensory experience if your child enjoys these activities.
Replace the spit-playing behavior with a more appropriate and hygienic alternative. If your child can be trusted not to eat hand sanitizer, give her a small bottle of sanitizing gel or foam to play with. This will have a similar feel to her own spit, but will kill bacteria rather than spreading them. Carrying a small squishy stress-relief toy or keychain gives your child a sensory experience using the palm of the hand. Moisturizer or shaving foam also can be used as replacements.
Establish clear and consistent rules regarding the spit-playing behavior and explain these to your child. These could include a zero-tolerance or time-limit rule. Under a zero-tolerance rule, your child is not allowed to play with his spit. Under a time-limit rule, you will stop him after a predetermined time period, such as 10 seconds.
Block and redirect the undesirable spit-playing behavior when it occurs. Use an informational "no" when you see your child playing with her spit and prompt her to clean, sanitize or wash her hands. An informational "no" is just saying the word "no" without any angry or aggressive tone in your voice. If your child's behavior is attention-seeking, shouting or scolding her may reinforce the behavior and make it more likely to continue.