Starfish Therapies

October 9, 2012

Questions about Oral Motor Input and their Answers

Here is an article written by one of our OT’s that I thought would be great to share!

Why is my child always putting things in his or her mouth?

When a child puts something in his mouth, he or she may be seeking oral motor input, which basically includes anything that gives the child sensory input to the mouth and may result in a motor behavior such as sucking or chewing. In short, oral motor input is organizing, meaning that it provides us with sensory input that elicits motor behaviors that help us calm down and focus. This is true not only for infants and children, but across the lifespan. In fact, before babies are born, they develop a sucking reflex that will allow them to feed and get nourishment. Thus, from the early stages of life, we learn that getting input through our mouths is a way to satisfy our more basic needs (i.e. nourishment) so that we can focus on more complex needs (e.g. learning from our environment, engaging in social interaction). Even older kids and grown-ups sometimes continue to seek oral motor input- think about chewing gum, biting nails, snacking “just because” or chewing on a straw or pen.

What’s the big deal?

Seeking oral motor input can become problematic once children move beyond the toddler stage, as it becomes socially inappropriate and of course potentially unsafe for them to be indiscriminately putting things in their mouths. Children may develop maladaptive patterns such as overeating, biting other children, or mouthing objects that are potential choking hazards.

What can I do about it?

We can use behavioral strategies to “teach” older children not to put toys or other inedible things in their mouths; however this may not change their basic need or craving for it. This is why we shouldn’t just ignore it- it certainly won’t do kids any good in the long run, particularly in the social arena, to allow them to mouth toys that are shared by other kids in the classroom, chew on their sleeves, bite their siblings during horseplay, or chew the ends of their pencils to bits. What we can do in these cases is provide alternatives or preparatory strategies to meet the child’s oral motor needs (see list below). This means either anticipating the need and providing oral motor options ahead of time, or having alternatives on hand to replace the inappropriate object/behavior.

What are safe/appropriate ways to provide my child with oral motor input?

  • Use an electronic/vibrating toothbrush in the morning before school
  • Chew foods that are crunchy like carrots or pretzels, chewy like taffy or peanut butter, sour like citrus fruits, or icy cold like a popsicle
  • Drink something sour like water flavored with lemon juice (for more input, use a narrower straw)
  • Use a thick straw to eat yogurt, pudding, or jello
  • Play with whistles, harmonicas, blow bubbles, or blow up balloons
  • Use a “chewy” or a vibrating teether

Remember, children should be supervised during oral motor activities to make sure they are using these tools safely!

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