While eating comes naturally for some infants and toddlers, it is actually one of the most complex activities we engage in on a daily basis. Eating requires the use of all of our sensory systems including tactile, visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory, interoception, proprioception, and vestibular. Not only does eating require postural control to maintain an upright seated position, but it also requires coordination of the lips, cheeks, tongue, and teeth. Eating requires a progression of food manipulation, from sucking to mashing to munching, and ultimately using a rotary chew to eat complex foods and textures. 

As humans, we are born with certain reflexes that support our eating at an early age, and often integrate by age one. These reflexes include the rooting reflex, suckling reflex, and transverse tongue reflex. As these reflexes integrate, it is important that our children know how to carry out these oral motor skills on their own. We can help children develop the oral motor skills and motor patterns to bite, lateralize, chew, and swallow a variety of textures. This actually takes quite a bit of practice, and can sometimes even require some additional teaching. One of the best ways to support our children as they transition from liquids to solids is to support the development of tongue lateralization (moving the tongue from midline to the sides of the mouth). Below are some of the ways to support tongue lateralization development: 

Suggested “Tools” to Support Tongue Lateralization: 

  • Z-vibe (can be used with or without vibration)
  • ‘P’ and ‘Q’ chewies
  • NUK Brush
  • Hard Munchables (a long, skinny, hard piece of food that won’t break in a child’s mouth): 
    • Hard munchables are often introduced around 7-9 months of age, but can be used to help teach tongue lateralization at any age.
    • The goal of these food items is NOT to bite and chew them. The goal is for exposure and exploration! We want the child to move the item around their mouth to get their tongue moving by following it reflexively. Dipping hard munchables in a puree and encouraging your child lick the puree off is often a motivating task. 
    • Examples: carrot stick, celery, beef jerky, frozen strip of pancake, lollipop, etc.

Frequently asked questions: 

  • Should I let my child put toys in their mouth? 
    • While we absolutely want our children to be safe, there are actually significant benefits to letting children explore and put safe toys in their mouths. This is one of the best ways for them to explore their world, especially before they are mobile. This can also provide exposure to a variety of tactile input, smells, and textures. 
  • Why is my child spitting food out even though they are obviously hungry? 
    • Oftentimes, children spit food out for several reasons. They may not have the oral motor skills to safely chew and swallow a food, or they may be overly sensitive to the taste or texture of a food. They may also be unsure of how to manipulate the food in their mouth. 
  • Why does my child need to move their tongue if they are only eating purees?
    • Tongue lateralization is required to manipulate most food textures, and helps support developing a mature chewing pattern. Chewing actually helps to stimulate teeth growth and protrusion, as well as palate development.  By practicing moving the tongue laterally before children are presented with a solid piece of food, children can safely practice and explore without the risk of choking. 

  • How else can I help my child use their tongue more efficiently? 
  • Start by eating with your child in front of a mirror so that they can see what their tongue and the food is doing. Parents can model what their tongues do while manipulating foods, chew with an open mouth, and use exaggerated tongue and chewing movements to help support their child’s feeding development. Don’t worry about manners just yet – skills come first!