By Alexa Trolley-Hanson
As an early intervention and feeding specialist, I am often asked, “How do I help my child develop the skills needed to eat and to speak?”
Both of these activities require a child to coordinate his lips, tongue and teeth as well as the muscles in the throat and chest. Collectively these skills are referred to as oral motor skills.
Even before birth, babies are working on developing oral motor skills as they suck their thumbs in the womb. As infants, children learn to latch onto bottles or nipples and develop suck, swallow and breathe patterns to manage increasing amounts of liquids without choking. As babies get older, they learn to move their tongues from side to side to move soft solids around their mouths, jaw strength to take bites, and munching and chewing patterns to manage a variety of solid foods.
Oral motor skills also form the foundation for expressive speech. The ability to position the lips and the tongues allow children to make early developing sounds like “ma”, “ba”, and “da”. As children become better at controlling their face and tongue, they are able to string sounds into words and words into phrases.
So how can parents help their children develop oral motor skills? Here’s a list of activities, organized by the skills they help develop.
Lip Closure, Facial Strength and Breath Control
- Blowing bubbles
- Blowing whistles with flat and round ends
- Drinking from a straw. A straw cup can be introduced to children as young as a year old and instead of traditional sippy cups. For children ages 3 and up, try drinking thicker foods, like yogurt or pudding, through a straw.
- Using a straw to blowing feathers or cotton balls across a table
- Straw art. Dip straws in water with food coloring in it or watercolor paints, then blow onto paper to create works of art.
- Bubble mountain (for children ages 4 and up). Fill a large bowl or empty milk container with water and a few drops of dish soap. Use straws to blow bubbles until they make a bubble mountain.
Tongue Mobility, and Facial Strength and Control
- Making raspberries
- Make funny faces in front of a mirror — smile, grimace, stick your tongue out, sad face, surprised face, kissy face, fish face or puffy cheeks
- Licking popsicles, frozen yogurt pops or ice cream
- Dip pretzels, bread sticks and fruits or vegetables into applesauce, yogurt, peanut butter, cream cheese or salad dressings and encourage your child to lick it off
Jaw Strength and Endurance
- Introduce chewy snacks such as dried fruit, fruit leather or fruit snacks (children over 4 years) to increase tolerance for chewing
- Introduce crunchy foods — such as pretzel rods, carrot sticks, celery sticks or dried fruits — and encourage children to use their “big dinosaur teeth” (molars) to crunch through them
- Play tug of war with washcloths, dried fruit, Twizzlers and teething toys. Encourage your child to bite down and hold on while you gently pull; you can do short little tugs or a sustained pull for a three count.
Hopefully these suggestions provide you with fun ways to help your child develop a strong foundation of oral motor skills. However, if you are concerned about your child’s eating or speech development, ask your pediatrician or school for a referral for an occupational therapy or speech and language evaluation.
Alexa Trolley-Hanson, MS, OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist.