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Feeding and Oral Development: Amazing Facts That Will Surprise You

Baby with brown eyes

We all know that infants grow and develop. But we might not know the extent to which feeding and oral development are interwoven. I learned so much in my recent podcast interview with Diane Bahr, and I’ve given a few highlights here.

Feeding method is influenced by feeding position

Good development is fostered when the baby assumes multiple positions. And, today’s babies might not be doing enough activities on their sides or their tummies. Babies have more flat heads since 1994 when the Back-To-Sleep campaign, now called the Safe to Sleep™ campaign, started. Fortunately, a breastfed baby can (and usually does!) get into multiple positions.

The mouth plays a critical role in development

I loved what Diane said, “The mouth is not only the route to good nutrition, but it is an area through which a child will gather information about the world and ultimately learn to express himself or herself through speech.”

Feeding with a bottle may have had an evolutionary impact. According to Diane, pediatric dentist and anthropologist Kevin Boyd posits that the typically receded jaw we see in newborns nowadays has occurred because our babies are fed with bottles.

Nose breathing is a good thing

Nose-breathing enables the baby to take in nitric acid. That’s a chemical compound that influences vasodilation and blood pressure in the body.

Sucking fat pads have a functional purpose

No, those cute, chubby cheeks aren’t just for decoration. Sucking pads are literally balls of fat that are normally present in the full-term newborn. The sucking pads provide lateral stability while sucking.

Flanging of the upper lip is good, but not critical

You’ve heard this as lip-flanging, lip-flaring, fish lips, and probably a few other descriptors. Those descriptors are saying that the upper lip flips outward around the nipple/areola. Diane says that good flanging of the upper lip is reassuring. However, lack of lip-flanging isn’t necessarily worrisome.  If baby has a deep latch and good suction, good milk transfer will occur.

I totally agree with Diane. However, I’d offer a caution, and I’m willing to bet Diane would agree. If the upper lip is sucked inward, or the upper lip flanged too far back, comfortable attachment and good milk transfer is unlikely.

Pacifiers can interfere with bone development

We breastfeeding advocates are more inclined to see how pacifiers tend to delay or replace feedings. We’ve also learned other problems, for example, that pacifiers increase the risk for candidiasis. Now, Diane points out that the presence of pacifiers can affect the shape of the roof of the baby’s mouth, because his bones are still so malleable.

“Tight lips” can indicate an oral restriction

A tight lingual frenum, a tight labial frenum, tightness in the fascia or some other type of oral restriction may be the explanation for the “tight lips” seen while the infant is breastfeeding. This could be a simple or a more complex issue. But it does affect feeding and oral development.

Diane pointed out what has been well-known to others of us for years: Other structural problems can masquerade as a tongue-tie. Indeed, the frenum may be “tied.” But the frenum may or may not be the problem. I know other colleagues who agree.

Before assuming that your baby needs a surgical correction of his tongue tie, consider input from the speech pathologist, the chiropractor or the osteopath. As Diane points out, these professionals are specially trained to work directly within the mouth, and they use special techniques to help reduce the tightness of those muscles.

Many parents use the spoon incorrectly

Diane warns us not to use a “scraping” technique. Instead, she says, “…you place the spoon into the baby’s mouth, and then you let the baby’s mouth and jaw close and you remove the spoon level so that they close their lips, we’re not doing any scraping of food off the spoon with the gum or the upper lip or anything like that by about eight months.”

Feeding and oral development aren’t separate, nor are they stagnant. Diane explains that “by about eight months, the baby will start to really actively use the upper lip and start to remove food from the spoon.”

And, Diane isn’t big on using spoons. She says that “good hand-to-mouth coordination occurs in the first two years” so that’s a reason to allow the baby to feed himself. (I know, I know, it’s messy!) Diane isn’t big on using sippy cups, either. But I won’t steal her thunder! Diane has plenty to say about both of these devices, so be sure to listen to the podcast! 

Make sure the baby closes his mouth

Diane emphasized that if a baby is doing an activity that requires:

  • an open mouth, his mouth should be open but…
  • a closed mouth (such as eating) his mouth should be closed.

A baby who has his mouth open during part of the feeding, or who has milk dribbling out the corners of his mouth during the feeding, does not have his mouth completely closed.

The same is true for older infants or children.

Here’s what Diane says, “And open mouth posture is problematic because it leads to a low tongue position. And then the tongue is not helping to keep the palate shape. So, at rest, when the baby is using the hands or doing something else other than vocalizing or eating, that baby’s mouth should be closed at rest.” As you know, the palate is not fully developed at birth. Maybe you’re starting to see how feeding and oral development are related.

Mouth toys helps strengthen the jaw muscles

Mouth toys that are made to be bitten and then on the parent can hold these triangles. They’re called Beckman Tri Chews, and the child himself or herself can chew at where the molars will be.

Diane reminds us that that to some extent, infants will explore their mouth with their fingers, and chew on their fingers, And, breastfeeding helps oral development more than bottle-feeding because it helps the infant use the back half (not the front half) of his tongue.

Do not underestimate the relationship between feeding and oral development

Diane has plenty of wisdom to share. Further, she offered all of my listening audience her free e-course. You may want to take advantage of that!

Does this post make you wonder if you better observe your baby’s feeding, or modify your feeding techniques? If so, please use the “share” button below so that others can gain those insights, too!

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