Learn everything you need to know about oral sensory processing: oral sensory seeking activities, sensory diet ideas, calming benefits for picky eaters, sensory seekers and sensory sensitivities!
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Thank you to our 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 like an inconspicuous piece of chew-jewelry!
Oral sensory processing can be one of the least understood parts of the sensorimotor system and sensory processing disorder.
But it’s a major factor in the development of feeding and eating skills, speech and language, tolerating daily activities such as teeth brushing, and for sensory seekers.
To learn more about the sensory system as a whole head to our complete guide on all things Sensory Processing!
What You Really Need to Know About Oral Sensory
There are three sensory systems that all receive input in the oral cavity or mouth:
1.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.
2. Proprioception (deep pressure) – The jaws can provide a ton of deep pressure input. Chewing and sucking gives lots of input to this sensory system. Cheeks can also respond to proprioceptive input while chewing, as they expand depending on bite size, and respond to food moving from side to side in the mouth.
3. 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.
Eating is one of the most common areas affected by difficulty processing oral sensory input.
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
- Grinds teeth
- Purposely stimulating the gag reflex
- Excessive messiness or seemingly unaware of food mess to lips and mouth during eating (past the age when this is considered typical)
- Stuffs mouth with food purposely, or holds food in mouth for extended periods of time instead of swallowing
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
- Prefers a certain temperature of food or dislikes extremes like frozen or warm
- Overly sensitive to mouth getting messy during eating
- Persistent picky eating despite general techniques to help
- 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?
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 instantly 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!
Oral Sensory Processing Activities and Tools for Toddlers and Kids
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 How to Create a Sensory Diet (with a free template), to help you begin to set up a sensory diet.
My son, Isaac, using a Chewigem USA chewy necklace.
Oral Sensory Processing and Chewing Activities
Use these activities for sensory seekers that are often biting their shirt, pencils, or other people as a safe alternative:
- Crunchy Foods (raw veggies, pretzels, chips, nuts, hard granola bars, popcorn, apples, etc.)
- Chew or put vibrating oral toys in or around the mouth
- Chew on chewy jewelry or sensory chew toys
- 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.)
Sucking/Licking Input Ideas
These are also great activities for seekers as they also provide a lot of proprioceptive input and can be calming and regulating:
- Sour hard candies
- Thick drinks through a straw (applesauce, milkshake)
- Drinking from a sports bottle
- Ice cubes
Blowing (generally organizing input) Activities
- Blowing up balloons
- Blowing bubbles
- Party blowers
Oral Sensory Processing Input Activities
These oral sensory activities will stimulate your child, but it’s most beneficial if you take small steps for getting used to this input for kids with sensory sensitivities (more on this below):
- Vibrating oral toys to put in or around the mouth
- Drinking carbonated beverages
- Eat, taste or lick sour foods (grapefruit, lemons, pickles, Sweet Tarts, Lemonheads, etc.)
- Eat, taste or lick spicy foods
- Eat, taste or lick salty foods
Oral Sensory Processing 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)
And, if you 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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Oral Sensory Causing Picky Eating??
Don’t miss our free picky eating workshop “3 Keys to Finally Turn your Picky Eater Around”. Learn how to tackle picky eating without losing your sanity, and help your child have a positive relationship with food for life.
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 19 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.
This information is very invaluable to parents like myself who has challenging eating situation. My 4 years old son has eaten only five dishes and had never eaten any snacks, vegetables and fruited. He eats only soft texture stew like food. Also he still often bites and licks toys and pencils. Looks like combination of both over AND under processing. Since he is extremely picky about food (he would not eat anything other than the 5 dishes), can’t use food for desensitization.
What tool would you recommend?
Thank you so much!
Hi Reena! Thanks for reaching out! You can try sensory bins with him to see if that helps with desensitization! Here is a blog post with sensory bin suggestions 🙂
Also, check out our free picky eating workshop for tips to help with his eating. Save your seat here!
Hi, thank you so much for all the amazing content. It has been more valuable than several different sessions with therapists.
Our son is a year old and I think he is showing Low Registration sensory behaviour. He is very keen to try our table food and will happily chew on a variety of foods but gags/vomits once he has to swallow or when he loses track of the food and it ends up on the back of his tongue.
Should I do all of the activities mentioned in the article?
I’ve read the article and the link you posted to the LemonLimeAdventures article and there are a lot of oral avoiding behaviour in our son as well. Is it possible that he can be a combination?
For example, at one stage he loved playing with a toothbrush and would have it in his point constantly. On the other hand will he only eat smooth purée and jogurt, and gag/vomit if there’s even a little bit of texture. He also mouths non food items all the time
And yes! It is possible to have a combination of sensory processing systems!
My 9 month old daughter has always had difficulty feeding from a newborn baby with her bottle/formula to now, weaning.
When she was 4 months old she was diagnosed with suspected cows milk protein allergy and was eventually subscribed hypoallergenic formula. Since weaning she seems absolutely fine with any cow milk products from cheese to yogurts etc.
However, she has never liked to be spoon fed so I have chosen to use baby led weaning and its has taken a few extra months but she finally has interest in food, which has been a great relief!
The problem now is that she doesn’t really swallow any food, she’s very keen to put the food in her mouth and give it a good chew/suck on it but then she just pushes it out with her tongue!
Should I be concerned? Any advice or tips would be greatly appreciated.
Hi Helen! Thanks for reaching out! Sounds like she’s making great progress! Most of the time, when a baby has food they’re spitting out or that’s falling out of their mouth all the time, it’s because of their oral motor skills. To help with this, try using a toothbrush on your babies gums a couple of times a day. It sounds strange, but that toothbrush actually causes your baby’s tongue to move around. And, that actually helps to strengthen it! You can read more about baby spitting out food here. Hope that helps!
Hi Kara! Thanks for reaching out! Gagging can be a common issue with babies/toddlers, mainly due to their sensitive gag reflux or even sensory sensitivities! Oral motor exercises, like the ones mentioned in the post, can definitely help to desensitize that gag reflux and strengthen his oral muscles. Go ahead and try any of the exercises that are appropriate for his age! In addition, we have a post about gagging that you can check out here!
Hi Alisha, My 10 month old doesnt mouth on objects or toys. If I offer him finger foods he just plays with them doesn’t bring them near his mouth. He sucks on his fingers sometimes and will take teether with my help for a short while.Does he has sensory issue or its a developmental delay? I am really confused and worried as most babies this age do mouthing. Please help
Hi Hina! Thanks for reaching out! Because he’s so young, it’s hard to say. But since he’s not mouthing objects or toys, which is common for this age, it could be that he just hasn’t made that connection. I would work on this with him outside of meals with all kinds of teethers and toys. Show him how to do it and gently guide his hand to his mouth. If he gets close at all, then give him big cheers and praise- this will be motivating for him. When he eats his purees, let him get some on his hands and try to quickly get it to his mouth. It may be messy, but he needs to make this connection. Don’t force, but keep trying and again give praise for anything he does that is in the right direction. We have more information and tips on this topic in our post here! Hope that helps!
Thank you so much for your reply. I will try out what you have suggested and see how it goes. Really appreciate your response.
Hi there! No problem! Let us know if you have any other questions 🙂
my son is 5 year old and does not eat any food. he like only pediasure that too kesarbadam . he is still drinks only on bottle we tried all option of weeding but he starves without eating rather than drinking on tumble or eating solids. frequent Chewing of non-food objects like shirt sleeves, bed sheets, and dislikes morning brushing. we are almost left out on any option for feeding him any food. kindly suggest on how to make him eat food
so sorry you are having trouble with getting your son to eat foods, we know how hard this can be. I would make sure to try to have him interacting/touching of foods (you can do this outside of mealtimes as well) to get him used to the different textures. Also, we do have a free workshop that might help with some suggestions for you! You can save your seat HERE
Hii,i have 3 year old son and he don’t like to eat anything by himself,he likes milk,water …He also eats food that is dal rice n vegetable but that should be in semi solid which h he can gulp direct and to be feeded by me ,and it should come from back side of mouth and he don’t accept any thing to be touched his face from front….He don’t put any food in his mouth by himself and he is feared of stucking in his throat…I have to feed him everything by taking him in my lap…He don’t allow to touch his face and keep moving constantly so I cant feed him without hixing his hands n den he opens his mouth…Plz suggest me how I can remove his fear of eating n bring interest in him
We know it can be such a challenge when our kids have trouble feeding. You might try spending some time focusing on brushing teeth his teeth daily. This can really help desensitize the inside of his mouth. We also have a post, Self-Feeding that would be helpful for you to check out. I hope that helps!
Hi, this is a great article which actually helped me to understand the issue with my 15 month old baby. He never ate anything since he was 6 month old except milk and he got all the symptoms of Oral sensory issue with Under processing or seeking Behaviour as you mentioned in your article. He ticks off all the points of the above category.
Now as I understood what is wrong so what shall I do to improve it? How can I help him to like the food and eat? Can you please advise? He only eats lumpy salty legumes and nothing else.
So happy that this article was helpful for you! I’d start with the activities on the list in the post these are really great to help with under processing. As far as eating, I’d start with our free workshop. This will help with great suggestions on where to start working on eating of foods. You can save your seat here
Good night. My daughter just turned 18 months and she doesnt eat. She doesnt allow us to put a spoon anywhere near her mouth. Sometimes she would eat fruits and pieces of bread. She loves popcorn and potato chips. She would drink water, juice and milk. We started blending certain foods and mixing it with her milk and she would drink it.
She would bite on her toys, crayons and thread or hair. Apart from that she is not saying any words as yet. Your advice will be greatly appreciated.
Thanks for reaching out! That’s great that she’s eating some fruits and other solid foods. I’d continue working on having her play/touch different foods, as this can be a great first step in moving forward. Also we do have a free workshop that is full of strategies to help moving forward. You can save your seat here
A child in this age group with this strong an avoidance pattern needs to be evaluated by an OT with experiences in oral-sensory-motor treatment and an SLP to ensure she is not aspirating into her lungs. After you establish a safety baseline, then a professional can give you a plan. You must be so very careful when dealing with the mouth and the airway. In addition, pushing the threatening activities now may lead to an eating disorder.
Hey I knew there was something up with my son but I didn’t think it was anything too major and I would like your opinion on what i should do. He’s almost 5 now, he still tends to drool and spit when he talks. He is constantly chewing on his fingers or other things absent-mindedly, and he’s a picky eater.
Drooling and chewing can be a common difficulty some children face. You might try to bring more sensory awareness to the mouth. One way to do this is through the use of an electric toothbrush. You can use the toothbrush on his teeth and tongue but you can also use it on the inside of his cheeks. This helps give him the extra sensory information he craves and makes his mouth more aware. You might want to check out our free picky eating workshop to give you some ideas about that. You can save your seat HERE.
My daughter is 5 year old n she does not eat anything throughout the day. She is not interested in any food except for pop corn n chips. She is not even interested in having icecream, chocolate,juices, fruits veggies, cookies, pizza, sandwiches n such kind of foods too. I hv tried all that I could to give her a variety of foods. She just gags looking at fruits n veggies n any food that I offer her. She keeps a single bite of chapati or so for hours n hours in middle of her mouth n doesn’t swallow . I am exhausted now. Please help me what shall i do?
Hi, my son is 6 years old he has this habbit of putting things in his mouth like pencils , comb , erasers and remotes ….he has been chewing the pencils front and back both sides …I understand he has oral sensory need but what should I do how will get resolved ?
Hey thanks for reaching out!
I would try to look for a replacement that you can offer when he starts to chew onto those things as well as making sure he knows that this one item (something like a chewy tube or chewlery would be great) so that he can get the sensation he is seeking. I’d also be looking to provide thicker liquids in straw and/or hard pretzel rods or other really crunchy foods throughout the day as this helps with the input that they are seeking so they are not seeking as much!
Hi, my almost 4 yr old grandson only drinks pediasure (any flavor) but anything else he only rubs the items on his lips, sometimes he licks his lips after rubbing it on but not very often. Any little speck of food that touches anywhere on the inside of his mouth he gags or vomits. He did eat 1st stage baby food but the therapist put crushed graham crackers in it like a year and half ago and he totally refuses to eat that anymore. The therapist said she pretty much didn’t know what else to do for him so I’m scouring the internet for any kind of help. He won’t allow for a toothbrush except brush his lips, I’ve gotten him the chewy necklaces and he does chew on it. He was diagnosed with autism but mild. I’ve read your articles and was wondering what advice you could give me to get his mouth desensitized? My son and daughter in-law just kind of think that he’s going to outgrow it but I don’t think that and I’ll try anything you suggest and make them do it too! Thank you so much for your forum!
Thanks for reaching out and so glad you found us! So sorry the feeding therapist was not able to help, but it sounds like you are trying some good ideas with the chewy necklace! I’d try to get him to accept a teether and move towards a vibrating teether (this can take awhile) but it will be working your way up to a tooth brush and being able to get inside his mouth. Here is an article that will help with some of that advice, while it is referencing babies, it will still be helpful even at 4 years old. You can read about it HERE