We are all born with what’s known as a “tongue thrust swallow” or also known as an “immature or reverse swallow”. It’s how babies draw the milk from a nipple or bottle teat into their mouths and swallow it. Then, as babies are introduced to solid foods (usually between 6 – 12 months), the need to suck for nutritional needs reduces and this “immature swallow” starts to develop into a “mature swallow” and the tongue thrusting disappears in most children. However, this natural transition doesn’t always happen for every child, and the tongue thrust pattern remains beyond the baby and toddler years and they often need some help to correct their swallow when they’re older.
When a tongue thrust swallow becomes a problem
Some children don’t make the transition to a mature swallow, particularly if they have sucked their thumb or used a dummy for a long time. They keep thrusting their tongue forward—sometimes continuing to do so into adulthood.
Signs your child may have tongue thrust issues
Here are some of the signs that your child may be a tongue thruster:
- They have a lisp.
- They poke their tongue out when they talk.
- Their tongue hangs out when at rest (not talking, eating or drinking).
- They’re an open-mouth breather.
- They’re messy eaters (the tongue thrust is pushing food out the mouth, making it hard for them to swallow).
- They have an overbite.
Check out this video for multiple examples of what a tongue thrust swallow looks like. Focus on the tongue moving between or past the front teeth.
Why it’s important to seek help now
If left untreated, it can pose significant problems for your child. If they keep thrusting their tongue when they’re eating or drinking (it should normally sit just behind the top teeth) they may have trouble swallowing and they’re prone to choking more often. Mouth breathing, instead of breathing through your nose can also have many negative consequences on a person’s oral structures, their dentition and their overall health (see video below).
Speechwise, the tongue thrust can affect certain speech sounds—a tongue thrust most often causes sounds like /s/, /z/, /sh/, /zh/, /ch/ and /j/ to sound different than they usually do and come out as a lisp. Your child may say other sounds, such as /t/, /d/, /n/ and /l/ with their tongue poking out between their teeth, which can affect the clarity of their speech and because they’re continually putting pressure (up to 2kg of pressure per swallow) on their teeth with their tongue, it can lead to an overbite. What’s worse is that while braces may temporarily fix the teeth problems, once the braces are removed the overbite will re-occur because the underlying tongue thrust swallow is still present.
How we help your child with tongue thrust problems
Here at Kids Chatter we can fix the problem.
First, we check to see whether it actually is a tongue thrust problem. We’ll ask them to have a drink of water with their lips open as well as closed to observe how their tongue moves. Typically, if water spills out, or they clamp their lips shut trying to keep the water from spilling out, chances are they’re thrusting their tongue forwards. We also check their speech sound production to identify if the tongue thrust is affecting their speech as well.
If a tongue thrust is identified and therapy is required, we’ll teach them a number of exercises, by showing them where to place their tongue at rest and during a swallow and how to say their speech sounds with the tongue in the right spot. It’s muscle based training for the tongue (or as we like to tell the kids, “taking your tongue to the gym”), which makes the tongue stronger and more efficient. However, this can take time as we’re often fighting against a lot of muscle memory and trying to teach them to use their tongue in a whole different way for an often unconscious movement like swallowing.
We may not be able to reverse an existing overbite (although we can stop it getting worse or preventing one if caught early), but we can stop your child thrusting their tongue, and help them eat, speak and breathe much better.
If you suspect your child has a tongue thrust problem, please call us today to arrange an assessment on 0432 735 044.