Article by: Michelle Newman & Kaitlin Castiglione, Speech-Language Pathologists
Oral motor difficulties consist of the inability of the mouth to do what the brain tells it to do due to motor planning difficulties or muscle weakness, which can affect a child’s feeding abilities as well as their speech production and intelligibility. As Speech-Language Pathologists, we are highly trained in this area in order to assess signs of weakness and/or abnormalities with the oral structures/mechanism. We assess the oral cavity/mouth for adequate function and structural integrity. We look for low muscle tone, how a child coordinates his/her mouth by imitating tongue and lip movements, as well as assessing a child’s jaw, lip, tongue strength and range of motion.
We and our colleagues have always been huge advocates about making oral motor targets FUN, simplistic and interactive at home. Some of the best therapy is done and most progress is made when kids feel like they are “playing” and not “working.” There are so many fun ways to target strengthening the lips, tongue, cheeks and jaw! Let’s go over some fun, simple, cheap ways to target oral motor exercises in the home environment that won’t break the bank and will provide an interactive way to work on and improve any weaknesses in a child’s oral motor mechanism!
No supplies needed, but a lot of fun!
- Silly faces, works on the whole oral mechanism and musculature, sure to provide some laughs and make some memories. No materials needed, just your fun silly selves. You can use a mirror if you’d like, but don’t need too as long as your child is imitating your silly faces. To name a few, you can make big smiles, stick out your tongue from side to side and up and down, blow raspberries, fish lips, hold air on your cheeks and “pop,” etc. These are a fun, simple and a quick way to get in a few exercises without your child/client knowing they are even doing “work.” They can be done while just playing with your child, in the car, bathroom mirror, tub, etc.
- Mirrors are a very useful tool for oral motor therapy. We keep these trusty mirrors in our “tool kit” for use as a therapist for more than just oral motor, but they certainly have their purpose in oral motor therapy. Mirrors provide the most naturalistic feedback. They are a great visual as well as aid in self-awareness for a child who has difficulty with oral motor movements. It provides them with a visual model of the parent/clinician’s mouth as well as their own for successful movement.
Some simple supplies:
- Blowing bubbles is for lip and cheek weakness and it is a really fun way for children to play with bubbles without knowing it is therapy. We also love using bubbles to aid with strengthening their core as well as breath support. Bubbles give instant gratification if blown appropriately by moving their lips to protrude and have enough air support to blow the bubble! To increase verbal output and provide some more lip work, have your child/client say “pop,” “pop,” “pop” when popping the bubbles.
- Using straws to drink is another really great way to have a child use every aspect of their mouth. Forming a good “labial seal” or lip seal around the straw is a skill that should be introduced by 12 to 18 months of age. Blowing bubbles into their glass with the straw can also be very motivating and a great way to address coordination, combine skills as well as work on different aspects of the oral musculature.
- There are many types of straws, thin, thick, squiggly, etc. some more challenging than others. When you give a child a squiggly straw the child looks at it as fun and engaging, but in reality it is even more challenging requiring the child to focus on drinking the appropriate amount of fluid at an reasonable rate, labial closure, sucking, the oral musculature as a whole.
Some more time, supplies and planning:
- Another fun way to target these skills, which might take a bit more planning and time, but is well worth it is to play what I like to call it “The Cotton Ball Race.” Take two cotton balls, or get the whole family involved, and have the child decorate the cotton ball, put a face on it, etc. and then have a race! Put the cotton ball on a long flat surface (kitchen table, kitchen island, coffee table, etc) and begin blowing at the cotton ball. Whoever pushes their cotton ball to the opposite end of the table wins! You can also use a straw to blow at the cotton ball for better aim!
- Cotton ball soccer, you need at least 2 people, set up a goal with your hands or you can be creative by making one or using something from around your house. Each player takes turns going back and forth trying to score a “goal.” Pick a number of goals to achieve 10 is an ideal number. Add a challenge and everyone uses a straw to blow the cotton ball around/across the table.
- Vibration is another great addition to oral motor exercises to increase tactile input. An electric toothbrush, z-vibe, or vibe critters are another great way to target oral motor! As a speech and language pathologist we are educated on the appropriate tool that would best fit your child’s needs.
- Using food to help facilitate an increase in strength, coordination, and range of motion of the oral motor system is another great motivational way to target these skills! Things such as lollipops, popsicles and ice cream, are great ways to use their tongue in different positions in order to gain strength. If there is weakness, you might notice that the child could be compensating for the tongue movement with their head. If this is the case, try to help them maintain a neutral position of their head by putting your finger on their chin to help them isolate their tongue movement to lick the lollipop, ice cream or popsicle. Another great food item that adds some resistance is peanut butter or really any other spread that you can put at different corners of the mouth, on the lips, etc. give the child motivation to taste the flavor of their choice by moving the tongue around. Your child can even lick this off a spoon to increase their tongues’ strength and range of motion. Frozen gummies and fruit snacks are a great addition to target resistance to the jaw. It can be considered “heavy work” for the mouth and can help strengthen their oral motor system but also give a child more awareness of the food inside of their mouth with the cold temperature of the gummy!
It is very important to remember that doing these fun activities with your child is key! Children that have a hard time using these muscles oftentimes do not have a lot of awareness of these skills and are unable to see what they are doing. Watching you as their model to see what they have to do is a super important step, but also creates a fun environment to complete these tasks in a motivating way!
Have fun! Reach out to your SLP if you need advice.
**Disclaimer: It should be noted that this blog was written during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been many restrictions, protocols and guidelines set by federal, state and local officials that need to be followed to keep everyone safe. We have encouraged these activities to be completed in the comfort of your own home. Use your judgment when engaging in these activities (i.e., “blowing”) if you have cause for concern.**