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!
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.
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” when it’s dysregulated. 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
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??
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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.