We have sensory receptors in our mouths that allow us to recognize information about temperature, texture (e.g. smooth like yogurt, hard like chips/pretzels, or a mixture of textures like cereal with milk), and taste (e.g. sweet, salty, bitter, sour).
Our brains receive further proprioceptive input from the joint of the jaw as we bite and chew on foods with different types of resistance (e.g. a crunchy carrot or a chewy sweet/gum). Oral sensory processing also contributes to the way we move our mouths, control our saliva, and produce sounds for clear speech.
HEALTHY ORAL SENSORY PROCESSING
Typical children with healthy oral sensory processing usually eat a variety of foods and can tolerate different tastes and textures. They are willing to try new foods, however it is normal for young children to avoid certain foods like green leafy vegetables and spicy foods. Children with healthy oral sensory systems can tolerate eating foods that have mixed textures like cereal and milk, spaghetti and mince or vegetable soup. They manage tooth brushing and visits to the dentist with minimal complaints.
PROBLEMS WITH ORAL SENSORY PROCESSING
Some children struggle with processing and responding to the oral sensory information they encounter in everyday life. They may be over responsive or have increased sensitivity to oral input, causing them to be resistant to oral sensory experiences like trying new foods or brushing their teeth. Babies that display oral sensitivity may avoid mouthing toys and objects and may miss out on the learning inherent in this most important activity. Babies may even find the breast or bottle teats offensive if they are severely sensitive to oral inputs and later may avoid finger foods. Children who are orally sensitive may choke or gag easily. They dislike certain food textures, such as sloppy food, mashed foods, avocado or may avoid rough textured foods. These children are often described as “picky eaters” and may have an extremely limited diet, restricting themselves to only a few familiar foods. Children with oral sensory processing issues may also refuse to use utensils to eat, disliking the feeling of a spoon or fork in their mouths. Oral sensitivity may also contribute to difficulties around self-regulation, which can lead to extreme emotional reactions (e.g. tantrums, fear, running away), making mealtimes and dental hygiene very difficult.
Other children may have decreased sensitivity to oral sensory input and therefore seek more oral input in order to help them organize their behavior and pay attention. Oral seeking children tend to place things in their mouth or chew on their clothes. They may grind their teeth in an effort to provide additional proprioceptive input. Oral seeking children may bite and chew on non-food objects (clothing, hands, fingers, pencils and toys) or even try to bite others. They may over-fill their mouths with food when eating. They may make lots of noise with their mouths for extra sensory input (clicking, humming, buzzing), which can be annoying at home or distracting in the class context. Children with decreased oral sensitivity can have difficulty with oral motor planning and co-ordination, as well as speech production.
ORAL SENSORY RECOMMENDATIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Oral sensory input can have an impact on the arousal levels of a child and potentially even change behaviors, which can help them become more organized and responsive.
The following oral sensory activities are calming:
Vibration (battery powered toothbrush, vibrating toys on cheeks/lips)
Drinking water/juice from a bottle with a straw or an opening that requires resisted sucking
Sucking thicker liquids (smoothies, yoghurt) through a straw
Deep breaths in and out slowly through both the nose AND mouth
Blowing bubbles, whistles or blowing up balloons
Chewing (chewy pencil toppers, chewable tubing, chewing gum/dried fruit/biltong)
The following oral sensory activities are activating:
Make noises with your mouth: buzzing like a bee, clicking tongue, humming, blowing raspberries
Make silly faces in the mirror (open mouth wide, sticking tongue out, smiling, frowning, filling cheeks up with air)
Eat crunchy (vegetable sticks/popcorn) or salty snacks (pretzels/popcorn)
Eat snacks with strong sweet or sour tastes
Should you require further information regarding your child’s oral sensory processing then it is recommended that you contact an Occupational Therapist trained in Sensory Integration for a detailed evaluation. When children have severe oral sensitivities, food has to be introduced in a graded manner under the guidance of a trained professional, and often this is in conjunction with other intervention for sensory processing difficulties.