Toddler a Picky Eater? The Development of Oral Motor Skills and Eating

Florence AngeloChild Development, Child Routines, Mealtime

The transition from bottle or breast to eventually eating solid “table foods” is a big development that happens during the first years of life. There are many steps in the process as children move from early purees through soft solids and onto a wide variety of textures and crunchy foods. But how exactly does a child get from drinking milk to munching on a raw carrot?Oral Motor Skills

The Importance of Tongue Lateralization

During early childhood, there is an important progression of oral motor skills that a child gains in order to move on to each set of new foods.  One of the most significant of these oral motor skills is tongue lateralization, or the movement of the tongue from side to side inside the mouth. When a typical adult eats solid foods, we bite using front teeth,  “grab” the food with our tongue, and move it over to the side of the mouth and onto the molars to be chewed. After chewing, our tongue moves the food back from the side of the mouth to the middle of the tongue to be pushed back to the throat and swallowed.  Who knew so many steps went in to chewing just one bite? If you noticed, the key to moving food inside the mouth is tongue lateralization. Without the movement of the tongue from side to side, we would not be able to safely chew most foods!

There can sometimes be an interruption or delay in the typical development of tongue lateralization, making it difficult for children to transition to eating different food textures. Some children may even appear to be extremely “picky” as toddlers because they are self-selecting foods that are just easier for them to eat.  A child might only want to eat yogurt, applesauce, puffs, pasta, or other meltable or soft textures that do not need to be chewed well before being swallowed. But this pickiness might just be your child’s way of telling you that they can’t lateralize their tongue or chew well enough to eat those more advanced foods.

Activities to Develop Tongue Movements

If you are concerned about your child’s eating, and specifically want to work on how she moves her tongue during eating, try some of the following exercises:

  • At the mirror when you are brushing teeth with your child, practice making silly faces using tongue movements side to side and encourage your child to imitate you.
  • During mealtime, you can place small soft pieces of food (such as puffs) in each side of your child’s mouth so their tongue has to “go get” the food to chew and swallow it.
  • Using sticky foods, such as peanut butter or Nutella, try playing a fun game with your child by putting dabs of food on the outside of the mouth. Try dabbing on the top and bottom lips for your child to lick off and eventually move on to putting it on the corners of the mouth for your child’s tongue to “go get”.  You can play this game along with your child to model how the tongue can move and even use a mirror so they can watch themselves!
  • Try using long foods such as veggie chips, dried fruit, or celery sticks (whatever your child can handle) and place over the molars for your child to practice chewing. The tongue will follow the tasty food over to the side of the mouth.
  • Using a rubber gum massager, or “Nuk” brush, lightly push the side of your child’s tongue to get it to push back against your pressure. You can even dip the brush in a favorite food to help motivate your child.

Remember to complete exercises on both the right and left sides of the mouth to ensure symmetrical development. 



Beckman Oral Motor. (2014). Tongue patterns. Retrieved from

Gisel, E. G., Schwaab, L., Lange-Stemmler, L., Niman, C. W., & Schwartz, J. L. (1986). Lateralization of tongue movements during eating in children 2 to 5 years old. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 40, 265-270.

Wilson, E. M., Green, J. R., Yunusova, Y. Y., & Moore, C. A. (2008). Task specificity in early oral motor development.