Guest Post: The Links Between Eating and Speaking
There is a link between how your toddler eats and how they later learn to speak:
Speech development in babies and toddlers has always been a hot topic in most mothers’ groups around Australia. Who’s babbling the most? Who’s using single words?
Did you know there’s a link between the development of a toddler’s feeding and their speech skills?
Why? What your toddler’s doing with his mouth muscles when he’s eating and drinking are actually the same movements that he’d use when combined with voice at a slightly later stage to speak.
The link based on muscles used:
- Think about what your baby’s doing when they are sucking from a breast or bottle – they tighten their cheeks and pull them inwards to create a channel for the milk to pass to the back of their mouth for swallowing. The tongue is also forming a groove (curling the sides of their tongue) to help this process.
- Now say the sound ‘sh’ (as in ‘shops’) – notice your cheeks are also pulling in and your tongue is forming a slight groove- like pattern in your mouth. Different tasks – same muscles.
These muscles continue to develop as your baby starts solids:
- Giving your toddler different textures such as puree (e.g. yoghurt), lumps (e.g. chopped spaghetti bolognaise) and finger foods (e.g. ripe banana) between 6-12 months of age helps challenge and develop different oral muscles (specifically their tongue muscles, jaw and lips), which are important for speech sound development.
- Regardless if you decide to do ‘baby led weaning’ or ‘parent led weaning/traditional method’ you’ll still be offering a range of textures and that is crucial!
- As your toddler progresses through their feeding textures in the first 12 months, you’ll notice that their sound production will follow the same sequence but usually a few weeks or months later. For example, most toddlers start eating lumpier foods around 7-8 months of age and their babbling sequences then start to increase in complexity around 9 months of age. So the feeding movements your toddler performs provide the patterns they learn and refine for their speech sounds (1).
But wait. There are exceptions:
- Now before I go any further, let me say that these similarities don’t prove that feeding skills are pre-requisites to communication. So if your child can’t orally feed for certain medical reasons it doesn’t mean that they will not speak. Children with special needs have other complicating factors that may hinder their development in any given area (like muscle tone, cognitive skills, anatomical issues, sensory issues or even aspiration risk/fluid inhaled into the lungs) and it’s likely these children are already using other ways to develop their oral muscles (e.g. sensory play and mouthing of toys, fingers etc). If you want more specific information in regards to your child it’s best to discuss this further with your local Speech Pathologist and medical team.
- Furthermore, if your child experiences sensory issues with feeding and food selectivity resulting from a diagnosis such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, this fits in an exception category and is best discussed in further detail with an Occupational Therapist who specialises in sensory issues and a Paediatric Feeding Speech Pathologist.
It doesn’t work in the opposite way:
- If your child has a speech and language delay, working on their feeding skills including doing mouth exercises (frequently called oro-motor exercises) won’t help develop their speech. The research is very clear on this – to develop speech, work on speech (4,5).
- The link between feeding muscle development (i.e. bottle feeding, breast feeding and starting solids) and speech is related to the first 12 months of life.
Finally, the feeding-speech link is a bit more complicated than just the muscles:
- It also involves the coordination of your breath, movement of your vocal folds (in your ‘voicebox’) and movement of your oral muscles (i.e. tongue, lips jaw etc). But herein lies another similarity – so does feeding. To breast or bottle feed, a baby has to suck then swallow (whilst holding their breath which naturally closes their vocal folds) and then start breathing again. Confusing this cycle frequently causes coughing and choking on fluids.
- And that is why some Speech Pathologists specialise in treating feeding difficulties – the muscles and coordination pathways are the same(2).
When I receive a Speech Pathology referral (feeding assessment) for a toddler having difficulty transitioning through their solids (e.g. puree to lumps), I am keen to chat with the mother. And now you know why – I want to support the development of a toddler’s oral muscles so they can transition through solids at a normal pace – not only for growth and nutrition reasons but long term feeding and speech development.
So the lovely ladies at One Handed Cooks thought some tips and strategies to help develop your child’s feeding and speech skills would be really helpful for their readers – so here are my top tips!
- Start solids between 4-6 months and no later than 6 months
- If you are considering baby led weaning, read the excellent Baby-Led Weaning post done by One Handed Cooks and get educated about the difference between gagging vs choking.
- If you are following a more parent led/traditional method of solids, don’t hold back with offering finger foods (eg soft ripe pieces of fruit/cooked vegetables eg banana, pear, avocado, roasted pumpkin, carrot and potato). You can do this as early as 7 months but always ensure your baby is seated supportively in a high chair and supervised with meals.
- Start offering cup drinks of water at 6-7 months
- Start eating your meals with your child and let them explore the foods on your plate if they look interested – they might surprise you with their oral skills.
Speech and Language tips:
- Talk talk talk – all the time to your baby but keep your sentences short e.g. ‘more drink?’
- Add lots of sounds to your routine e.g. ‘click click’ when you put their car seatbelt on, ‘rrrripp’ when you pull the tags off their nappy. Sounds are not only easier to say for your baby but they help your baby tune into your conversation.
- Use lots of repetition when talking to your baby so they hear the same word (e.g. ball) as many times as possible e.g. ‘my ball, roll ball, oh no, where’s ball etc.’
- Lastly, don’t forget about books and nursery rhymes, it’s never too early to start reading to your baby. But don’t worry about reading the sentences in the book. Rather, point out the pictures, name the actions and add lots of sounds. Their attention will be fleeting but the more interactive you are, the more fun it will be for them.
Finally, feel reassured your baby will develop in their own time and if you are concerned, chat with your doctor. I like to think that our mouth muscles not only help us to eat but also help the development of the muscles required to speak – Building blocks really!
About the author of this article
Valerie is a Paediatric Feeding Speech Pathologist with 10 years experience working in a range of specialist facilities in NSW Health. She has recently opened a private Speech Pathology practice in Newcastle called ‘Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology’ that caters for babies and children with feeding difficulties and early speech and language difficulties. Valerie is passionate about working in the area of paediatric feeding, special needs and early intervention. She has also been involved in the teaching and training of Australian Speech Pathology University students and allied health professionals. You can find out more about Valerie Gent and ‘Let’s Eat! Paediatric Speech Pathology’ via her website and Facebook page.
1) Morris, S.E. 1998 “Feeding and Speech Relationships”, New Visions.
2) Selley, W.G, Ellis, F.C, Flack, F.C & Brooks, W.A, 1990, “Coordination of sucking, swallowing and breathing in the newborn: Its relationship to infant feeding and normal development”, British Journal of Disorders of Communication. 25, 311-327.
3) Arvedson, J.C & Brodsky, L, 2002, “Paediatric Swallowing and Feeding, Assessment and Management”, Delmar Cengage Learning.
4) McCauley, R.J, Strand, E., Lof, G.L., Schooling, T. & Frymark, T. 2009, “Evidence Based Systematic Review: Effects of Nonspeech Oral Motor Exercises on Speech”, American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, vol 18, 343-360.
5) Bowen, Caroline PhD, 2013, “Controversial Practices in Children’s Speech Sound Disorders – Oral Motor Exercises, Dietary Supplements, Auditory Integration Training”. Speech-language-therapy.com