Glancing over at your child to see them enthusiastically chewing away on seemingly nothing can be both comical and a bit concerning at the same time. The good news is that it’s unlikely anyone slipped your baby some infant chewing gum without you noticing. Rather, your baby is making use of something more readily available- their tongue.
While this behavior may certainly seem a little odd, it’s actually very common. Chances are your baby’s tongue chewing is nothing to worry about, and may actually serve a beneficial purpose.
Here is some more information about why your baby might be chewing on the tongue, what developmental milestones could be right around the corner and some issues to watch out for.
Tongue Chewing – Should I Be Worried?
Healthy young babies usually do not tolerate pain well, so take comfort in the fact that your child would not persist in this behavior if it hurt.
Most of the time, tongue chewing is a completely normal behavior that is either reflexive or a sign of normal development. It’s highly likely that your child will outgrow this activity in a few weeks, but a few people continue to have this unconscious mannerism for their entire life.
If your baby makes chewing motions often, it can be easy to assume that they are just gumming their tongue every time. While that is probably exactly what they are doing, it’s still a good idea to check inside your child’s mouth to make sure they haven’t put any small objects in there.
There are a few situations where tongue chewing could be a problem in itself or signal another concern, so it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your baby’s behavior and contact your health care provider with any questions.
Reasons for Tongue Chewing
There could be several factors behind this behavior, and your child’s age and level of development can shed quite a bit of light on what might be going on.
Newborn to Three Months of Age
In very young babies, tongue chewing is often a reflexive action rather than an intentional one.
Triggered by Sucking Reflex
The motion that looks like chewing in this age group is often actually a type of sucking action. As the only way they can obtain food, the sucking instinct is very strong in young babies, and they will take the opportunity to latch on to almost anything that gets near their mouth.
Older babies often chew or suck on their hands, but a newborn typically lacks the coordination to bring their hand to their mouth. To satisfy the urge to suck, your baby might take advantage of anything they have available, including their tongue.
Could be a Hunger Cue
A common hunger cue in young babies is to stick their tongue out, but some babies may start to make a chewing motion instead.
If your baby regularly chews their tongue around their normal mealtimes, you can probably assume they are letting you know that they are ready to eat.
Four Months of Age and Older
Tongue chewing is most common in this group. At this age, many babies start realizing that their bodies have multiple fascinating parts. Teething and getting ready for their first taste of solid food are also usually on the horizon.
The Realization That They Have Something in Their Mouth They Can Move
Your baby is an explorer by nature. When they become aware that they have a moveable object in their mouth, many babies will enjoy spending a great deal of time finding out what this new plaything does.
If this is the case with your baby, they may also explore their mouth in some other ways:
- Sticking their tongue out
- Moving tongue from side to side
- Noisily spitting
- Putting their fingers in their mouth to feel what’s inside
Could be a Sign of Readiness for Solids
Young babies have a protective mechanism called the tongue-thrust reflex. This reflex helps prevent choking by causing your baby to automatically push their tongue out when something enters their mouth.
As your baby’s development progresses, this reflex disappears to allow your baby to start taking bites of solid food. The tongue is key to moving food around in the mouth and swallowing properly, so learning how to make more sophisticated tongue movements is one of the most important skills your baby needs to eat solid food.
These are a few other signs that your child might be ready for solid foods:
- Able to independently sit up straight in a highchair
- Strong head control
- Interest in other people’s food
Could be a Sign of Teething
Some babies find that pressure on their sore gums helps to alleviate some pain, so a teething baby will often chew on anything and everything they can get in their mouth. Since their tongue is an easy target, it might be their most frequent one.
If the following signs accompany tongue chewing, it’s probably safe to assume that a tooth is on its way:
- Increased drool – Chemical elements in saliva can help prepare your baby’s gums for new teeth to break through, so saliva production often increases when your child is teething.
- Crabbiness – A sharp tooth cutting its way through the gums can hurt, and having to deal with prolonged discomfort can be enough to make anyone crabby. Teething crankiness is usually worse during the night, possibly due to the fact that there are fewer distractions during the overnight hours than there are in the daytime.
- Swollen, red gums – Teething can take a long time for some babies, and other, less-specific signs could persist for days or even weeks before a tooth comes through. However, if your baby’s gums appear inflamed, you can probably be pretty sure a tooth will show itself soon.
Tips to Reduce Tongue Chewing
Tongue chewing is usually nothing to worry about, and your baby should outgrow this behavior on their own shortly. However, if you find tongue chewing a little off-putting, there are some steps you can take to distract your baby or provide an alternative.
Make Sure to Meet Your Baby’s Sucking Needs
In newborn to three-month-old babies, making chewing motions frequently could be a sign that your baby is not getting their daily sucking needs met. A pacifier might be an effective soother until they can raise their hands to their mouth independently.
Be Attentive for Early Signs of Hunger
You may be able to prevent some hunger-related tongue chewing if you feed your baby as soon as they start showing early hunger cues. Be alert for these actions:
- Smacking lips
- Sticking tongue out
- Opening mouth
Try to Distract Your Baby
You probably won’t be able to fully stop your baby’s chewing if they have just discovered their tongue and have a strong urge to play with it.
However, letting them explore can be a good thing. Learning how to properly control the various parts of their mouth is an important skill, and chewing lets your baby practice coordinating their tongue and jaw movements.
If their chewing seems excessive, you can always try presenting your baby with a distraction. A noisy or chewable toy, a fun book or an interesting walk outside may do the trick.
Introduce Solid Foods
As long as your health care provider gives you the all-clear, you may want to think about introducing some cereal, vegetables or fruits.
To take advantage of your child’s desire to chew, you may want to consider the baby-led weaning method. This approach to introducing solids bypasses the traditional purees in favor of giving your child large pieces of soft foods that they can feed themselves.
If you are interested in learning more about self-feeding, check out this guide on baby-led weaning basics.
Try a Few Strategies to Relieve Teething Pain
Try to make sure that your child always has teething toys within easy reach. Many babies find coolness soothing, so try refrigerating teething toys for a few hours before giving them to your child. Alternatively, wet a clean washcloth with cold water, wring it out well and give it to your baby to chew on.
To provide some soothing pressure, you can massage your baby’s gums with your own freshly-washed fingers.
Over-the-counter infant pain relievers can also be helpful if your child is old enough to use them safely. Follow the package dosing directions, or contact your health care provider for their recommendation.
When Tongue Chewing Could be a Concern
Even though your baby’s tongue chewing may look quite strange, it is almost always harmless. Nevertheless, frequent and seemingly compulsive tongue chewing could be a cause for concern for a few different reasons:
It interferes with breathing and eating
If your baby’s tongue chewing is severe enough to present an actual danger, it’s likely that this behavior is a symptom of an underlying issue rather than a problem in itself. Poor muscle tone or an oversized tongue are two examples of situations that require medical attention.
If your baby has difficulty breathing, a slow or rapid breathing rate or a bluish tinge around their mouth, seek emergency care immediately. In the absence of emergency symptoms, contact your baby’s health care provider to discuss your concerns and develop a treatment plan.
It causes your baby pain
Your baby may accidentally give themselves a painful bite every once in a while, or repeated chewing may cause soreness and a bit of swelling.
If you notice your baby crying when they chew on their tongue, try distracting them with another activity, give them a pacifier or offer a teething toy to chew on instead.
If your child continues to chew despite the pain, make an appointment with their healthcare provider.
The possibility of incorrect oral development
In extreme cases, repetitive actions like chewing could lead to a situation where your baby’s jaw may develop improperly or their teeth aren’t able to come through the gums as they should.
If your baby’s health care provider has concerns about your baby’s teeth or jaw, they may refer you to a pediatric dentist for a more detailed examination.
Babies do strange things sometimes, and chewing on their tongue can certainly seem like one of them. Thankfully, it’s usually nothing to worry about, so try to enjoy your baby’s antics and find the humor in the situation.
Think of it this way: Before you know it, tongue-chewing will be a thing of the past as your baby moves on to a completely new and different puzzling behavior!
Did your baby chew on their tongue? Did you try to get them to stop, and were you successful? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!