It is very common to find that a child who is experiencing speech development difficulties also had feeding difficulties as a little one.
The muscles we use for sucking, chewing and preparing food have a taxing second job as muscles for speech.
When babies are breastfeeding or bottlefeeding they are using their lips, tongue, jaw, cheeks and muscles at the back of their mouths. During sucking the tongue grooves to accept the nipple or teat. Each suck requires all of the muscles to work together in order to extract milk. Feeding makes these muscles strong.
When babies start eating solid food the muscles learn to work in different ways.
How feeding development affects speech development
The importance of the tongue
The tongue is very important for many different speech sounds. For example, the tongue tip is responsible for ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds, while the back of the tongue helps to make ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds. The tongue has to be strong, fast and flexible. It acts like a little gymnast quickly moving into and out of positions in order to make sounds during speech.
As lumps are introduced into food, the tongue gets very good at moving the lumps over to the gums for chewing. The tongue stretches and gets to know every inch of the mouth during eating. All of its stretching and investigating during feeding help it to move easily within the mouth during speech thus aiding speech development.
The lips are important for sounds such as ‘m’, ‘p’ and ‘b’. Again the sucking action during early feeding helps makes the muscles in the lips strong. Strong lip muscles are also required once solids are started to keep food contents inside the mouth!
The role of the jaw
The jaw also plays a role in speech. It moves up and down to accommodate actions of the tongue – try saying ‘l’ and then ‘p’ to see how your jaw moves to allow your tongue to produce these sounds.
Muscles at the very back of the mouth
There are a group of muscles at the very back of the mouth that are important for sounds such as ‘m’, ‘n’ and ‘ng’ (as in ‘sing’). The soft palate has to hold itself up to stop air flowing through the nose for some sounds (e.g. ‘b’), but drop down for nasal sounds (e.g. ‘m’) to be produced. Again these palatal muscles get a really strong work out during suckling.
All muscles working together
Over time, the muscles will also work together to produce sounds such as ‘s’ and ‘th’. It is easy to take for granted the speed, strength and agility of the muscles that allow us to talk.
A parent’s ‘gut feeling’ about their child’s speech development is usually a pretty good barometer. If you have any concerns about your child’s speech or language development, consider seeing a speech pathologist.