Eating is a vigorous activity for the muscles of our mouths. It’s also a highly stimulating activity for all of our senses. We warm up our muscles before sports, warm up our vocal cords before singing and it can be helpful for a lot of kids to warm up their mouths before eating, too.
I like to ‘wake up the mouth’ by brushing with a Nuk Brush and practice chewing with a chewy tube before presenting any food. (shown above: Nuk brush–can be ordered online, but you can use a toothbrush or any mouth brush, and chew tubes–I like to use strips of theraband exercise tubing in different thicknesses for chewing, but you can buy chew tubes specifically made for chewing, too. For babies with no teeth yet, I like to use the really soft finger brushes).
A big note here that if a child is not comfortable with you brushing their mouth or holding the chew tube to help them chew on their teeth, they can use/hold their own brush and tube and you can model with your own. Sometimes it’s just more fun and comfortable for kids that way, and that’s ok. In fact, if they want to participate by doing it themselves, that’s great! Just like with eating, we don’t ever want to force anything into a child’s mouth during food play; that’s just scary, not therapeutic.
I like to start with brushing and work slowly into the mouth from the outside in. If a child pulls away or is hesitant about brushing their lips, we start on the hand and work our way up the arm towards the lips. Then we brush all the structures in the mouth: lips, cheeks, tongue, sulci ( the grooves between the gums and the lips where food often gets stuck), and the top of the mouth. There are lots of specific bush strokes and techniques that can ‘wake up’ specific nerves and work on different parts of the mouth, so if your child has a therapy team, I definitely suggest talking to them about specific brushing techniques that could help your child’s individual needs.
If you don’t have an individual therapy routine for brushing, that’s not a problem. This can be a really fun time for your child to explore their mouth without a lot of instruction, too! Just having a brushing and chewing routine before experiences with food can also help some kids transition to meals and snacks with a predictable sensory activity.
There are lots of ways to switch up a brushing routine and keep it fun and interesting. You could brush in front of a mirror and make silly faces to try to see all the parts of your mouth. You could practice brushing a puppet’s mouth. And I like to sing songs while we brush and chew. I often use the ‘This Is The Way We Go To School,’ tune and sing about each step: ‘this is the way we brush our lips,’ ‘this is the way we brush our tongue,’ etc…But you could make up a song to any tune!
After brushing, we move on to non-nutritive chewing (chewing on something that’s not food). This gets the muscles of the mouth moving and can help get the mouth moving in the pattern of chewing before a child tries to manage food. I’ll either show a child how I bite the tube with my teeth or help a child place the tube on the bite surface of their teeth, then help them roll it over to chew on the other side. And again, I like to sing a song, which can get a little silly while modeling chewing, but it makes the brushing and chewing more of a game and allows me to give instructions without telling kids what to do!
Non-nutritive brushing and chewing is a great way to wake up kids’ mouths before eating and it can also be something in your toolbox you can pull out in the middle of a meal or snack. If a child is starting to hold food, or their chewing becomes disorganized while eating, you can always take a little break to wake up the mouth again with a brush or practice chewing before moving on to the next bite.
Happy brushing, chewing and food play! 🙂