Tons of oral motor exercises for toddlers and kids that can easily and naturally be used in the home. Plus, get a free downloadable PDF!
I’m getting a little bit technical in this post, as I tell you about the powerful, but often unheard of, oral motor exercises. Unless you happen to have a child in feeding or speech therapy, then you’ve probably not heard the term before. It’s very common lingo in both occupational and speech therapy. I’m taking the time to talk about oral motor exercises because using them can absolutely transform how your child eats, if they won’t eat a variety of foods or if you’re baby/toddler is having a hard time transitioning to table foods.
The problem is that oral motor exercises don’t help in every instance of extreme picky eating or baby’s that won’t eat. To know if they’re going to be helpful for your child, we’ll need to do some detective work. To begin with, you’ll need to think about what and how your child eats. I think an example might help here, so I’m going to tell you about a little boy, Micheal, that was having difficulty eating. He was 12 months old when his mother came to me for help.
Micheal’s mother desperately told me that he wouldn’t eat foods. Then, she corrected herself, and said, “Well, he tries to eat some foods, but all of the food comes right back out of his mouth.” Aha, it’s an important clue that Micheal was trying to eat and not just flat out refusing (we’ll get to why in a minute). I learned that Micheal was taking all sorts of soft cooked veggies and fruits, putting them into his mouth, seemingly chewing them for a long time, and then they would haphazardly fall out of his mouth.
Micheal would also accept some pureed foods and had done okay eating baby foods, but mostly seemed indifferent to the whole experience.
His mother was stressed.
In Micheal’s case, oral motor exercises were a perfect strategy to help him learn to eat better! And, they helped a lot, combined with other strategies for helping babies learn to eat finger foods. Within a few weeks, Micheal was eating 5-7 new foods, and they weren’t falling out of his mouth! (Read more about how to transition baby and toddlers to table foods.)
If Micheal hadn’t received some additional help with his oral motor skills, he might have continued to struggle to eat. His family would have done their best, guessing what to do at each turn. He may have grown into a 1, 2, 3 year old, or older with serious picky eating challenges. At some point, his oral motor skills likely would’ve gotten at least a little better, but many other layers would’ve been added to the picky eating problem, making it hard to unravel.
What could’ve happened is a story I see in front of me all the time.
Of course, Micheal’s story is just one example of how helpful oral motor exercises can be, and they certainly aren’t just for babies or toddlers. Children of all ages may benefit from them.
Before we begin, keep a look out for the oral motor exercises downloadable PDF at the end of the post. I have a special version, just for professionals that are helping or supporting feeding, and you’ll get a bonus: 20 Feeding Therapy Ideas.
What Does Oral Motor Mean Exactly?
Oral motor refers to how we use the muscles inside of our mouth. This includes the tongue, lips, cheeks, and jaw. They are all parts of our mouth and are tied to tons of muscles, and just like any muscle, it can be strong or weak. Coordinated or not coordinated.
We need our oral motor skills to be able to talk, eat, or drink from a straw. They aren’t something most of us give much thought to, but they are very important.
Signs a Child May Need Oral Motor Exercises
This is where we’ll start our detective work! Below I’m going to list common signs you might see if your child has either some difficulty coordinating their oral motor skills or underlying weakness. It’s important to note that you’re looking for several signs to be present to point towards your child benefiting from oral motor exercises.
Also, this is not any sort of diagnosis. If you’re concerned about your child’s oral motor skills, I’d highly recommend a feeding therapy evaluation or if you’re child is under three and you live in the U.S., you may qualify for a free in-home evaluation from your state’s early intervention program.
Here are some red flags that oral motor skills needs some attention:
- Food falling out of 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 (often referred to as “pocketing food“, there are other reasons children do this, as well)
- Gagging on food after its been in mouth (not immediately or at the sight of food, check out this guide on baby gagging)
- 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 (Crunchy or soft)
- Difficulty drinking from a straw (if over 24 months old)
- Drooling (only consider when combined with other factors on this list, as drooling has many different potential causes. Learn more about when your child is too old to drool here.)
How to Use Oral Motor Exercises with Kids
If your child is in feeding or speech therapy, you may see their therapist practice oral motor exercises for a certain amount of repetitions or over a period of time. And, if you’ve been told to follow through on that at home, then please follow the direction of your therapist first.
For many toddlers though, it’s nearly impossible to get them to sit and complete “exercises”. And, for older children, it may start to feel like a chore. If it does, they likely aren’t going to try very hard or they’re going to rush to get through them, not really reaping the full benefit. That’s why I like to use oral motor activities in their play as much as possible.
This is actually pretty easy to do. Once you learn about what the oral motor exercises are below, you can either make a list (or print mine out), gather any simple supplies you might need, and have them on the ready. You may decide to have a basket of these items out for your child to engage with at any time, or maybe to set up a time everyday that you play with the oral motor toys.
I don’t like to call it “exercise” time, unless I have to. Ideally, I like to just use oral motor exercises as part of a routine. For instance, I might find some time I can focus on them after breakfast each day for 10 minutes, where I get down on the floor and be silly with the ideas and toys below. Or, I might try if I had a 15 minute commute after daycare or school (most of the exercises can be done easily in the car). Giving your child the chance to do oral motor exercise everyday or a couple times a week can have a big impact.
Doing these activities with your child and demonstrating is very important, too! Kids that need oral motor exercise are having a hard time using those muscles and they can’t see what they’re doing. Watching you literally helps them see what they need to do. Plus, it’s more fun and motivating. You can also try the activities in front of mirror!
You may work on oral motor exercises for weeks, months, or in some cases, years. You’ll know you don’t need to do them anymore when they’re able to complete them easily and they are able to chew foods well or their speech has significantly improved.
Transforming Oral Motor Exercises for Toddlers and Children
As you look through the list below, you’ll see the exercises organized by the different parts of the oral system: tongue, cheeks, jaw strength, lips. Children may have difficulty or need strengthening in all of the areas or they may need to focus on just one particular muscle.
If you see your child has no problem completing certain groups of these exercises, there’s probably not a weakness there! When they struggle to complete them, that’s usually a sign they need more help in that area. However, some activities aren’t developmentally appropriate at all ages. For instance, a 13 month old isn’t usually capable of blowing bubbles, but a 2 year old is. I will indicate ages next to the exercises.
Lastly, keep in mind, there’s a lot of overlap between the different exercises and the muscles they target.
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Use a vibrating toothbrush to brush teeth (stimulates tongue movement)
- I like this smaller one for babies and toddlers. Note that vibration can be intense sensory input, if your child refuses, take baby steps to help them get used to the sensation. Never force.
Licking popsicles or lollipops outside of the mouth
Placing applesauce, yogurt, or pudding on the corners of the mouth and having kids lick off. (Mirrors are helpful if your child struggles with this one.)
Click or cluck tongue
Sing “La, la, la”
Try to touch tongue to tip of nose (it doesn’t matter if they can’t get there, the tongue in that direction is what matters)
Count teeth with tongue
Lip and Cheek Exercises:
Blowing air kisses
Drinking through a straw (Learn how to teach babies and toddlers to drink from a straw from as early as 9 months old).
- Experiment with thicker textures like milkshakes and even applesauce to make it more challenging.
Hold a small carrot stick or other food in between the teeth without using teeth to hold it steady
Make silly faces
- fish lips (ages 3 and up)
- Make “O” shape with lips
- Spread lips far apart
- Kiss lips
- Blow fish face, with cheeks puffed out
Blow bubbles (20 months plus)
- Pick a nursery rhyme that your child likes and try humming it together
Play a harmonica
Smack lips together
Blow whistles (easy one’s can be used from about 18 months and older)
- There are a ton of whistles out there, many are very affordable. These “lip kazoos” are very easy and a great place to start.
- Other whistles like these blowers are more challenging. Sets are also available if you want a variety.
Bite on a vibrating toy
- Baby teethers can work if they fit in your child’s mouth.
- Handheld massagers can even be held to the jaw for a few seconds at a time to stimulate the muscles.
- These animal jigglers are designed to go inside your child’s mouth and can even be used as utensils. Kids are often motivated to bite on the chewy texture. Therapists love them (I always had one in my therapy bag).
- For the most intensive vibration, therapists may use a z-vibe. These are very powerful and should be used carefully, making sure you child is comfortable with the sensation. Vibration is very stimulating to the muscles in short bursts of 3-5 seconds, but starts to relax the muscles after that point. Watch for your child’s reactions.
Use a mesh bag (found in the baby department) to chew on foods directly on the molars
- We want kids to chew directly on their molars, or where they will be, on the back of their gums. Hold (or have them hold) the mesh bag and chew while keeping it in place. I love to put frozen grapes or strawberries in the bag, but use a food you think your child will enjoy!
Chew on molars with chewy foods
- Dried mango strips
- Beef jerky
Some children LOVE oral motor exercise and want to do them all the time. That’s because there is a sensory component to how oral motor exercises feel. The texture, the taste, and the smell. These exercises can be very stimulating. At the same time, some kids will avoid these activities solely because of the sensations they experience. If you think you’re child falls into either of these camps, then head to Everything You Need to Know About Oral Sensory.
Ideas for Oral Motor Therapy
Sometimes kids need some extra motivation, and these are some bonus ideas that take the oral motor exercises to the next level. Perfect for therapists to use during therapy or parents looking for some more creative ideas. I’m constantly finding new ideas on Pinterest, even though their original intent wasn’t an oral motor exercise. I pin them to my Child Development and Picky Eating boards, you can follow along if you’d like to keep the ideas coming!
Want to Print out a list of these oral motor exercises?
I’m thinking it might be helpful to print a list of the oral motor exercises above! So, I made one for you. But, there are two different versions. The first is for professionals, like therapists (OT’s, SLP’S, PT’s, etc.) and teachers that work on or support feeding in children. In addition to your oral motor exercises, you’ll get 20 different feeding therapy ideas!
Parents, I haven’t left you out!
If you have any questions about oral motor therapy or exercises leave them below in the comments, I’m happy to help!
More on Oral Motor for Kids and Toddlers
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.