Find our exactly what oral sensory processing is, indicators that your child has oral sensory needs, and oral sensory diet activities to help improve it! This post is sponsored by Chewigem USA
I want to take a minute to thank today’s sponsor, Chewigem USA. Chewigem USA provides a wide assortment of quality and safe chewy jewelry, which is perfect for oral sensory processing. So many kids with oral needs benefit from quick access to something to chew on. One of the easiest ways to do that is to have your child wear an inconspicuous piece of jewelry so they can fill that need to chew!
One last note before I get started. I’m assuming some baseline knowledge about sensory processing in this post, if this is all new to you, or if I use some sensory terms you aren’t familiar with, be sure to check out my Sensory Basics page where I cover all that information.
What You Really Need to Know About Oral Sensory
There are three sensory systems that all receive input in the oral cavity or mouth:
- Tactile (touch) – Orally, the tactile sense receives input when anything touches the lips, tongue, gums, and cheek. The tongue in particular has a lot of tactile receptors to give feedback on the way something feels or it’s temperature.
- Proprioception (deep pressure) – The jaws can provide a ton of deep pressure input. Chewing and sucking gives lots of input to this sensory system.
- Taste – The tongue has tons of receptors that allow it to taste various flavors such as sweet, salty, sour, and spicy.
Talk about a trifecta! No wonder so many kids have something oral going on! Since oral sensory processing is affected by three senses, your child could be over, under, or not processing any one or all of these sensory systems. Again, this will be a unique combination for your child. For example, my son under-processes or seeks oral proprioceptive input, over-processes or avoids oral tactile input, and seems to fall somewhere in the middle range on taste with a slight preference to spicy and bold flavors. Now that we have cleared up exactly what oral sensory processing is, I will proceed by just using the term “oral”, knowing that you know it is really a combination of any of the individual senses that make it up!
One last note, eating is one of the most common areas affected by difficulty processing oral sensory input. If you have been here before, then you know I have written extensively about kids and eating. You can find tons of information on “picky eating” by heading to Picky Eating and Sensory Processing, as well as How to Turn Picky Eating Around.
Oral Sensory Behaviors
There are some tell tale signs that your child is seeking, avoiding, or not registering oral input. I have organized these behaviors below into these categories, however this is just a guideline. Some of the behaviors in this list may be indicative of other causes, especially when seen in isolation.
Under-Processing or Seeking
- Excessive or frequent Licking of various or random objects
- Excessive or frequent Chewing of non-food objects like shirt sleeves, bed sheets, wood, paper, crayons, pencils, toys
- Biting toys or people, especially when unprovoked or when overly excited
- Chews on inside of cheeks
- Bites or sucks in lip frequently
- Mouth or suck on various objects, pacifiers, or toys (Check out if your child needs to wean from the pacifier and if so, how to do it!)
- Loves very spicy, salty, or sweet foods
- Bites nails
- Prefers crunchy foods
Over-Processing or Avoiding
- Gags at the taste or sight of certain textures
- Dislikes brushing teeth
- Prefers specific texture of foods, either crunchy or soft
- Loves bland foods with little or no flavor
- Prefers foods smaller in size
- Avoids messy or mixed textures of food
- Seems to have difficulty chewing various foods
- Difficulty using a straw (*This is also commonly associated with poor oral-motor skills, which refers to coordination and strength of mouth movements)
- Drools and spits frequently
- Frequently spits food out of mouth while eating
- Food seems to accidentally fall out of mouth
- Loses track of food in mouth and as a result, will gag/choke on foods (*This gagging is different than I listed under over-processing. In this case, gagging doesn’t happen instantly, but after the food is in mouth. This type of gagging can also be caused by poor oral-motor skills)
My hope is that, with this information, you can start to think twice about some of the oral behaviors your child is exhibiting. Maybe you didn’t realize that some of your child’s quirks had an oral sensory motivation behind them. Once you start looking at why they are doing what they are doing, it will change your response, which leads us to the last question… how can you help your child?
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Supporting Your Child’s Oral Sensory Needs
I took a continuing education class once and the instructor said, “oral sensory input is the quickest way to get the sensory system regulated.” That’s a big statement! We then went on to watch a video that showed a boy getting too much stimulation on a swing during therapy. The therapist noticed and stopped the swing ride. The little boy immediately ran around the room desperately and obviously looking for something. He found a squishy ball and sunk his teeth into it like it was a steak. You could see the immediate release. I watched that video many years ago, but it had a big impact on me as an OT, and how I treat oral sensory input – with a lot of importance!
Note that I did not indicate which of these activities was alerting or calming. Some of them generally tend to have one affect over another, but it can differ from child to child since everyone processes sensory input uniquely. I encourage you to experiment with each of these activities as part of your child’s unique sensory diet and notice what tends to calm, alert, and/or organize your child. Check out What a Sensory Diet Is, if that’s a new concept or term for you.
My son, Isaac, using a Chewigem USA chewy necklace.
- Crunchy Foods (raw veggies, pretzels, chips, nuts, hard granola bars, popcorn, apples, etc.)
- Vibrating oral toys
- Chewy jewelry like this one from Chewigem USA.
- Chewing gum (kids, younger than you may think, can handle this with proper supervision)
- Chewy foods (fruit leather, dried fruits, licorice, fruit snacks, beef jerky, bagels, marshmallows, raisins, tootsie roll, etc.)
- Sour hard candies
- Thick drinks through a straw (applesauce, milkshake)
- Drinking from a sports bottle
- Ice cubes
Blowing (generally organizing input)
- Blowing up balloons
- Blowing bubbles
- Party blowers
General Input Activities
- Vibrating oral toys
- Drinking carbonated beverages
- Sour foods (grapefruit, lemons, pickles, Sweet Tarts, Lemonheads, etc.)
- Spicy foods
- Salty foods
Activities for Avoiders
- Slowly increase tolerance of a vibrating toothbrush
- Use a firm pressure when brushing teeth, brush cheeks, tongue, and along gums well, too!
- Play in a sensory bin! Of course, this isn’t directly affecting oral input, it is improving the tactile system as a whole and can have a dramatic effect.
- Explore new foods with no pressure to eat them. Talk about the foods color, texture, and smell.
If your child is avoiding oral sensory input, some or all of these activities may not be welcomed. However, the above activities can be broken down into small steps, and will help to desensitize the oral sensory input that is being over-processed. In addition, any of the other activities can also be used for avoiders, but will likely need to be broken into very small steps they can tolerate.
On that note, as a reminder, remember to never force any sensory activity, your child should always be an active and willing participant. Even better is when they initiate a sensory diet activity on their own! (Get a list of over 100 Sensory Diet Activities, for the whole sensory system)
Lastly, you can check out two last resources for oral sensory tools and activities here and here, if you really want to be thorough! And, if your think your child has some difficulty with how they’re eating, you’ll also want to check out oral motor exercises.
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Don’t forget to head over to Chewigem USA and check out all there awesome chewy options.
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 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.