Eating is a complex activity that requires all of the muscles of the mouth to work together. You have the lips, cheeks, and tongue all working to move the food around and get it to where it needs to go. If you have a muscle problem it can be very difficult to eat. You could have muscle weakness, muscle tightness, oral apraxia (also known as problems with oral motor planning), or poor oral motor coordination.
A baby starts out sucking and swallowing, and this uses a forward and backward movement of the tongue.
As development progresses, the tongue learns to move side to side in order to move food around. Then you start learning to chew and your cheeks and tongue have to work together to hold the food between the chewing surfaces, whether those surfaces are gums or teeth.
If your motor control doesn’t develop well enough to get that tongue and cheek movement, it can be very difficult to eat.
Some people are lacking so much of the control that it can be dangerous for them to eat. If you can’t control when the food goes to your throat, there is a chance that it will get to your lungs instead of your stomach. This is called aspiration, and can be life threatening.
Tests can be done to see if aspiration is a problem, and if it is, the feeding should stop. The primary test is called a barium swallow study, aka videofluoroscopy, aka cookie swallow study.
In Occupational Therapy, we work on improving tongue movement and control, cheek control, and chewing patterns. We will also work on sucking patterns with small babies, and sucking from a straw in older children. The muscles and patterns used to suck from a bottle and straw are different.