Oral motor skills are the movements of the muscles in the mouth, jaw, tongue, lips and cheeks. These skills begin to develop in the womb in order to support children with feeding as they reach full term and as children grow these skills begin to integrate. These terms may be technical and unless you’re experienced with occupational therapy and speech therapy you might not even be so familiar with this. But don’t worry! This blog will help guide parents and guardians to be more comfortable in dealing with this somewhat technical topic.
You may wonder why it is important to even talk about this? Well, knowing about oral motor skills can have a great impact on how your child eats and speaks. Oral motor skills play a huge role in a child being able to have a positive experience with their food. Who doesn’t want to have a stress-free feeding time with their children, right? By looking at whether there are delays in their skills we can then address it in order to guide them into becoming more efficient and independent eaters. Please do note that the activities here are not intended to replace therapeutic intervention, it is still best to talk to your occupational therapist and/or your speech-language pathologist. These are just some easy ways to work on these skills especially now that we are confined to our homes due to Covid-19.
So, what are the signs to look out for in order to see whether your child needs oral motor exercises? I would like to refer to Alisha Gorgan MOT, OTR/L. She listed in one of her blog posts about oral motor skills the common red flags to look for and here they are:
- Food falling out of their mouth while trying to eat
- Difficulty chewing
- Mashes food with tongue
- Sucks on food instead of chewing
- Will hold food in mouth, sometimes for hours (this is known as pocketing food)
- Gagging on food after it’s been in mouth
- Mouth is often in an open position
- Tongue hangs out of mouth
- Difficulty sticking tongue out
- Never chewed on toys or teethers as a baby
- Difficulty learning to eat table and finger foods as a baby and toddler
- Preference for certain texture of food (either crunchy or soft)
- Difficulty drinking from a straw (if over 24 months old)
- Drooling (only considered when other factors on the list are also present because drooling may also have other potential causes)
Again, please remember that these are just red flags to look out for and just because you see one or two things that your children do, doesn’t mean that they necessarily have oral motor delays. It is always best to consult with professionals.
With this settled, let’s now discuss what exercises you can do at home and how we can do this the AIMS way!
The first step is to find what interests your child already has and capitalize on this in order to make sure that the activities you choose will be effective for him or her. Making it seem like what you’re doing is just “play” will increase the chances that your children, whatever their age may be, will be engaged and focused on the activity.
Let’s begin with activities you can do that target the lips and cheeks:
- Use bubbles! Most children like bubbles so this is an easy and effective way to exercise their lips. Creating the “o” shape and practicing how to blow air is great exercise for them. Alternatives to this could be using whistles and horns especially if they enjoy music and sounds.
- Straw activities: you can prepare their favorite drinks and drink from silly straws. This is great not just for the lips but also for the tongue and cheeks.
- A combination of these two activities is trying to make straw bubble art. All you need is some tempera paint and dishwashing soap, stir it up and then place the cup with the paint and soap mixture on top of a piece of paper and start blowing the colorful bubbles, wait for them to dry and voilà! You’re ready to frame up your art!
For the tongue:
- You can make ice-pops with their favorite flavors. Licking them outside the mouth is a great exercise for their tongues. Lollipops are also great for this activity.
- Putting chocolate syrup, whipped cream, yogurt, or applesauce on the corner of their mouths and asking them to lick them off while they are looking in the mirror will also be very helpful!
- For children old enough to know how to count, you can ask them to count how many teeth they have using their tongue.
For the jaw:
- You can use the baby teethers you’ve been keeping in storage and letting them bite and exercise their jaw on it.
- Use vibrating toys that they can bite on.
- And handheld massagers are effective for muscle stimulation in the jaw. If your children are not sensitive to motion you can hold it up near the jaw area for a few seconds.
You can easily change and customize these activities to the needs and interests of your child in order to ensure that you can get the most out of it. Try to incorporate it in your daily routine, but make sure to still have variations so your children will remain excited every day!
Written by: Patricia Nicole Diaz, RPM & AIMS Global therapist