How can I get my six-year-old to stop licking his lips?
June 27, 2014 4:11 PM   Subscribe

How can I get my six-year-old to stop licking his lips, which results in a chapped ring around his mouth?

My son licks his lips and then sort of pulls his lower lip up over his upper lip, followed by the upper over the lower. He does this constantly and it ends up looking like this. This is after a shower and doesn't look so bad; when we pick him up after school it looks very red and sore.

When we're with him we apply lip balm almost hourly. We put reminders in his lunch and send him to school with an Aquaphor lip balm in his pocket, but, being a six-year-old boy, he doesn't always remember to apply it. By the time we pick him up he looks like he had a mynock stuck to his face. How can we keep him from licking his lips so much, or is there something better than Aquaphor, Carmex, or Burt's Bees that will help with his very chapped lips?
posted by DakotaPaul to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Putting a lip balm on him when he goes to bed at night might help clear up some of the chapping while he's sleeping. (It works for me, anyway!) I use either Blistex Medicated or C.O. Bigelow Metha Lip Shine.
posted by jabes at 4:15 PM on June 27, 2014

My oldest licked his hands constantly when he was about seven. This became a huge battle and it's a long story but the short version is that he did it because they felt dry and the "cure" for this bad habit was explaining to him that saliva digests the oils on the skin and makes the dryness worse. Once he had that explanation, I had his full cooperation and it took under two weeks to fix something which had previously been a huge battle for many months.

So, have you had that discussion? Does he understand he is making the problem worse by using saliva to treat the sensation of dryness?
posted by Michele in California at 4:17 PM on June 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

For me, things like carmex make me bite my lips more, because there's a feeling of there being something on them that should be scraped off. I've had some luck with aquaphor and with coconut-oil-based things.

Does he have any insight about why he does this? Do his lips feel itchy or dry, and he's trying to scratch or moisten them? Or is it more of an autopilot, habitual thing that he does for distraction/fidgeting?
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:18 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I didn't so this when I was younger, but I did have a weird (and in my opinion much grosser) oral fixation at that age: sucking on a lock of my hair that hung down around my chin. was continually damp, and when it wasn't damp it was dried into this horrible dreadlock. Looking back it was hands-down disgusting.

Anyway, my parents did EVERYTHING to get me to stop. Notes in my lunchbox, rewarding me when I didn't suck on my hair, cutting my hair short (a temporary fix, but eventually it was mouth-length again...), you name it. The only thing that worked was not mentioning it, ever. Like one day it was no longer a thing they talked about, and then I guess it became boring*, and then I stopped.

So my advice is to stop mentioning this to him. Stop with the regularly-applied lip balm, stop with the lunchbox notes, etc. Make sure the chapstick is readily available to him when he decides he needs it.


is there something better than Aquaphor, Carmex, or Burt's Bees

These are all very drying on my lips, especially the Aquaphor. Is it possible that you're unintentionally exacerbating the problem by drying out his lips, which causes him to lick them more, which makes them drier, which prompts you to reapply the lip balm, etc.?

* Contrary to how this sounds, I had a lovely childhood with amazing parents. But like all little kids, I loved me some special attention, even if it came via gnawed-on hair.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:24 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

jabes: Yes, we load him up with Aquaphor at bedtime. He looks much better by morning. Then the process starts over at school.

Michele in California: We have told him that the licking does make it worse, but he says he forgets. Maybe telling him the saliva digests the oils (or something equally "science-y") will help.

LobsterMitten: I really haven't asked why he does it, just assumed it was because they felt dry to him. I'll talk with him about it tonight and report back.

Thanks for the quick replies so far!
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:25 PM on June 27, 2014

I make my own lip balm with beeswax, olive oil, almond oil and coconut oil. It's much more oily than Burt's Bee's or other lip balms.

In a pinch, Nivea lip stick balm has worked for me, but my own home-made lip balm is so much better, a hint of beeswax but more oil than Burt's Bees. I never thought about it before, but it's more oily than waxy, if that helps. And I am never licking.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:28 PM on June 27, 2014

I would tell him that every time he licks his licks he is actually EATING himself and see if that helps. Yes, I am serious, yes, this is what my parents told me finally once they got fed up with my perpetually chapped lips. It worked wonders. So did medicated blistex which tastes gross but heals everything. YMMV.

But seriously, tell him he's slowly allowing his saliva to digest his skin (not the oils, the skin) and see if that jump starts the process.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:30 PM on June 27, 2014

Yes, definitely find something creamier than the balms you've been using. Minty stuff in particular always feels so drying. I might try Vaseline or Nivea lip butter.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:32 PM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah this is probably as much nervous habit/oral fixation as it is a practical problem (dry lips). I was also a hair chewer, and stopped around the time my mom gave me a necklace I used to gnaw on instead. Now they make jewelry expressly for this purpose, and there are even some pendants that would work well for boys.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:41 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

So... Is the kid getting enough animal fat? If the kid is allergic to milk and eggs, is the kid eating fatty meat or, better yet, getting tallow/suet or (not-quite-as-good) lard in his diet? Olive oil and coconut oil and avocados usually won't do the trick. If the kid is getting enough macronutrient building blocks, then (usually) the lips won't get chapped and feel dry and the kid will stop licking them, digesting them with saliva, and making them worse. Causes not symptoms. YMMV.
posted by zeek321 at 4:44 PM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

He may be thirsty/dehydrated. So....more water.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:46 PM on June 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

Is he anxious about something? To me (speaking as someone who started developing mild trichotillomania when I was a little older than your son), this reads less as a "just doesn't understand how saliva dries out his skin" thing, and possibly more like "engaging in physical self-soothing over something."
posted by scody at 4:57 PM on June 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

Let him pick out a lip balm that he can have in his pocket.
My parents did this to me with car ex, and now My 7 and 5 year old boys love this.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:00 PM on June 27, 2014

How about something geared towards the sensory kids, like a chew noodle or chewy pendant? If he has the chew noodle in his mouth, he won't be able to lick his lips as much, perhaps?
posted by Ostara at 5:08 PM on June 27, 2014

I have the driest lips around -- putting stuff on never helps me personally. It makes them feel worse.

I agree with zeek321. I'd look at greater causes.

Is he mouth breathing? Does he have allergies? Is it seasonal for him?

Food, maybe not allergies but sensitivities can cause an itchy mouth/lips (right?).

When things are bad for me, I make oiler-than-usual meals. Pasta with much olive oil is my favorite. I also lay off heavy dairy and eggs. I increase fruit and vegetables, especially water heavy stuff like cucumbers and watermelon. Decrease salt heavy foods.

I also do as Ruthless Bunny suggests, I drink a ton more.

It's hard to tell a kid that young to stop doing anything habitual while at school. He's playing and outdoors and not thinking about his own body much.

Good luck! My kids each have had habits like this, on and off, and they do disappate. Frustrating though!
posted by mamabear at 5:10 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of my brothers did this as a kid (and I chewed my hair and all my pencils). It's not an uncommon habit and plenty of kids outgrow it. Calling attention to it may be making it worse. Same with the lip balm - it might feel or taste gross to him and increase his urge to lick.

Providing a substitute fidgety object might be good for him, whether it's chewy or handheld. And I like the idea of letting him choose a lipbalm or two - there are lots of fun flavors to choose from - but don't be surprised if he loses them, intentionally or not. After that, leave the matter alone and see if things get better after a couple weeks.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:12 PM on June 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think this is eczema. My sister had it when she was little and we didn't recognize what it was - my mother always said it was caused by my sister licking herself too much.

But then my ex-husband showed me pictures of himself as a child, he had the same thing, only quite a bit worse, and he had been diagnosed officially with eczema. He told me he used to lick himself because he was uncomfortable, the skin felt taut, and saliva provided temporary relief. It eventually went away as he got older, but our kids do have it too, in the winter especially.

We use Hydrolatum cream. It seems to help but they don't like it too much.
posted by Dragonness at 5:17 PM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't have any tips for getting him to stop, but I do recommend that you use lanolin at night - it's much more moisturizing than any lip-specific treatment I've used. It also doesn't taste very well, so that might discourage biting/sucking.
posted by Safiya at 5:33 PM on June 27, 2014

Yeah, I'd also wonder what's behind all of the lip licking. It seems like an OCD/anxious type of behavior. And I'm also guessing that his lips and skin are actually dry. Vaseline seems to work well for me, and it's also goopy and just doesn't taste all that good. If you're not already, I'd apply some sunscreen or moisturizer as well. It doesn't taste very good, so this could help in preventing him from licking the skin around his lips.
posted by Sal and Richard at 6:03 PM on June 27, 2014

Seconding lanolin - it's what I use when my kids get chapped lips. It's very thick and not at all easy to wash off.

You could also try breaking open a vitamin E capsule (just the pills in the supplement aisle) and smearing that on his lips. Again, not easy to wash off.
posted by flex at 6:04 PM on June 27, 2014

As others have said if it is a self soothing behaviour an oral aid may help. Correcting him may not work as if it is a soothing behaviour it is probably unconscious. In our case attempting to correct our son for similar behaviours actually made them worse.

You can buy chewy pencil toppers for school. There are all kinds of other chewy/sensory toys available that you can try out at home. We've used necklaces, bracelets and hand held figeters/chewies with our son. They've worked well for him.
posted by Cuke at 6:14 PM on June 27, 2014

The Aquaphor may be making it worse. Try some Shea butter (I like L'Occitane's Ultra Rich Lip Balm) or lanolin.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 7:27 PM on June 27, 2014

Does he take any medicines? Some drugs-- I'm specifically thinking of stimulants-- can give you an oral tic as a side effect (mine do).
posted by threeants at 7:46 PM on June 27, 2014

I have a lot of trouble with chapped lips. And it is *much worse* when I am dehydrated. Having him drink a lot more during the day will probably help, though I know it's hard to get kids to drink a lot of fluids. I don't use any of the medicated lip balms, as they are irritating. And balms that require finger application or squirt out like a liquid are completely annoying and sticky and may be why he isn't complying.

I know plain old chapstick is a petroleum product, and a lot of people won't use it for that reason, but it is exceptionally good at creating a waxy waterproof barrier that is hard to lick off. Many of the more natural lip balms are oily rather than waxy, and so they wear off a lot faster. I personally like to use the stick lip balms from either the Body Shop or Aveda. They are both on the waxier end of the spectrum for more natural concoctions. But for your emergency, I'd recommend just starting with plain chapstick. (Flavored balms encourage more licking.)
posted by amusebuche at 10:31 PM on June 27, 2014

As a kid, I had a lot of trouble with chapped lips - one of the big issues for me was just the feeling of the chapstick itself. I'd second vaseline, but maybe try blotting it away with toilet paper or something until it feels reasonably normal.
posted by mikurski at 12:59 AM on June 28, 2014

A neighbor's kid was doing something very similar a while back, she was around 6 or 7. It turned out that she had been traumatized by something horrible she accidentally stumbled across online and her parents were going through a divorce.

Is it possible there's something scary going on at school?

I wouldn't use lanolin, some people are allergic. Have you tried changing his toothpaste?
posted by mareli at 5:48 AM on June 28, 2014

I agree that this is likely a compulsive behaviour. I believe him when he says he forgets not to do it. He doesn't realize he's doing it because it's automatic. There is something vaguely pica-like about it.

He's six. I think he's probably iron deficient. That is extremely common in children this age, and few doctors test for it. (Does he like milk and yoghurt? If so, maybe dial that back...)

Have a look at this and see if you recognize your son in it.
posted by rhombus at 7:45 AM on June 28, 2014

I do this to a certain extent. When I want to cut back I use NeoSporin instead of lip balm because it tastes terrible and for whatever reason, it unchaps my lips pretty quickly (a couple of days).

I definitely get drier lips when I don't wear lip balm that has sun block in it. I hear lips have no melanin and therefore burn without people noticing. Maybe that's why.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:59 PM on June 28, 2014

I used to do this like crazy as a kid even though I never got any bad chapped ring-- and it was totally compulsive (in the casual sense). My parents told me at some point that licking my lips made the moisture already on them evaporate when the saliva did, which helped slightly. I think the only thing that truly helped was eventually getting my own chapstick that I liked and wasn't too greasy/chemical-tasting (the one I liked was pepperment/regular Burt's Bees), and compulsively applying that instead.

Also applying it before bed one night all over my scabby nose/lips when I had a chapped nose from blowing my nose while having cold. The miracle when I woke up and everything was healed converted me. Maybe reinforce the pattern that licking = bad results, chapstick = good results?
posted by stoneandstar at 9:16 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Coming late to the party, but since it hasn't been mentioned - I put Balmex zinc oxide diaper ointment all around my daughter's lips overnight when she was around that age. It looked goofy, but helped loads.
posted by hairy terrarium at 7:50 AM on June 29, 2014

« Older Midwest US to UK beer arbitrage   |   Oh, Man, I Want to Buy a Boat! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.