In infancy, tongue thrust is a natural reflex that happens when something touches the baby’s mouth. This reflex causes the tongue to push out to help the baby breast or bottle-feed.

As the child gets older, their swallowing habits naturally change and this reflex goes away.

But what happens when tongue thrust continues after infancy into childhood? What problems can this cause for a child?

Keep reading to learn more about tongue thrust, how it can affect your child and what you can do to help.

Tongue Thrust After Infancy

Tongue thrust is normal up until a baby is about 4 to 6 months of age. During this time the reflex is important because if an infant gets something other than milk in his or her mouth, then the tongue can push it out to prevent choking.

If tongue thrust persists after a child is no longer a baby, it is classified as an oral myofunctional disorder. An oral myofunctional disorder is when there is an abnormal tongue, jaw, or lip position while at rest, swallowing, or speaking.

Tongue thrust can be a worry for dentists and parents because too much pressure on the inside of teeth without the proper amount of pressure on the outside from the lips can cause misalignment of the teeth.

Having misaligned teeth can cause problems with chewing, cause more frequent cavities or gingivitis because the teeth are harder to keep clean, increase the risk of a tooth breaking, and make you feel self-conscious.

Causes of Tongue Thrust

There are numerous factors that can cause tongue thrust. Some causes of tongue thrust are:

  • Thumb sucking
  • Certain kinds of pacifiers or bottles, or the prolonged use of either
  • Bruxism (more commonly known as teeth grinding)
  • Allergies
  • Ankyloglossia (more often known as a tongue-tie)
  • Macroglossia (an enlarged tongue)

As you can see, some of the causes are hereditary while others are caused by habits. Allergies can cause the tongue to lie low inside of the mouth because enlarged tonsils or nasal congestion make it harder to breathe.

Ankyloglossia can also cause tongue thurst because the tongue does not lie in the proper position in the mouth. In addition, having an enlarged tongue can cause issues because the tongue doesn’t allow the mouth to properly close when swallowing.

Talk to your child’s pediatric dentist to see what you can do to curb undesirable habits that can lead to tongue thrust.

Symptoms

There are several warning signs that your child may have an issue with tongue thrust. Here are some of the potential symptoms:

  • Speech impediment because of tongue placement with certain sounds
  • An open bite when the front top and bottom teeth do not touch
  • A malocclusion (or a bad bite)
  • Having an open mouth resting position with the tongue resting on the front teeth
  • Frequent mouth breathing not caused by allergies

Some symptoms may be initially overlooked or misdiagnosed due to overlapping with other possibilities.

Tongue Thrust Treatment Options

It is not uncommon to work with several practitioners throughout the course of tongue thrust treatment.

For instance, you may start out with a diagnosis or a referral from a pediatrician to go to a pediatric dentist. The pediatric dentist might refer out to an orthodontist who could recommend orthodontic treatment as well as having treatment by a speech therapist or orofacial myologist at the same time.

There are several tongue thrust treatment options to consider. Let’s take a look at some of them.

  • Orthodontic tongue reminders which redirect the posture of the tongue, and braces to correct misalignment of teeth and jaw
  • Tongue-tie release to correct restriction of the tongue
  • Speech therapy to correct speech impediments and swallowing habits
  • Orofacial myology treatment to correct the placement of the tongue, jaw, and lips

Orofacial myology treatment is 80% to 90% effective according to the International Association of Orofacial Myology.

Why Should We Seek Treatment?

If the tongue is not properly positioned within the mouth, it can cause issues with skeletal growth, tooth alignment, and development of the face.

Over time, the shape of the face can change and become more elongated due to the child predominately breathing through an open mouth. Because of this orthodontia is often required, but if the underlying cause of tongue thrust isn’t corrected first, then the teeth and jaw will revert back after braces are removed and the process will need to be started again.

Speech issues from tongue thrust can lead to social problems from feeling self-conscious or behavior issues when the child becomes frustrated by not having his or her speech understood.

Imagine how many times a day we swallow. Now think of the tongue performing this improperly each time. When you think of how many times this “bad habit” is done each day, it becomes clear that professional help and guidance is needed to correct tongue thrust.

Final Thoughts

We now know that because of the tongue’s importance, treatment is highly recommended.

It is recommended that parents seek dental appointments in their child’s early years to correct undesirable sucking habits prior to 36 months of age. Of course with sucking habits, prevention is more desirable than having to work on correction, so speak with your child’s dentist or pediatrician for tips and tricks on weaning from a bottle or pacifier before the age of 2.

Read here to learn more about when to take your child to his or her first dentist appointment.

Through a collaboration with different practitioners, your child can receive a treatment plan to resolve tongue thrust symptoms and its effects.

If you suspect that your child has tongue thrust symptoms past infancy, contact your Fort Worth pediatric dentist to discuss diagnosis and treatment.