Oral Health & Development
Oral development is the change and maturation of teeth, language, and other oral portions of the body, which all influence each other. The way your baby’s mouth develops affects her speech and language; and conversely, feeding practices affect the way her mouth grows.
Your baby’s oral development begins at just 4 weeks gestation and continues through pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood. Her jaws, lips, teeth, head, and neck work together to form her oral development, which synchronizes with the progression of her feeding and speech. You can support your baby to reach each new milestone with healthy transitional practices.
Stages of Oral Development
Some babies may develop earlier, while others develop later. Each baby develops differently at his or her own pace based on unique circumstances in the environment, nutrition, genetics, home-life, and more. The following milestones provide an overview of development.
Before birth: The jaws, esophagus, taste buds, and trachea develop before your baby is born. Her nasal breathing, taste, tongue position, and the ability to nurse through sucking and swallowing emerge at this time.
Your baby even practices puckering her lips and moving her mouth in utero.
0-6 Months: Until the age of 6 months, breast milk or formula serves as your baby’s complete source of nutrition. The gag reflex protects your baby while she nurses and keeps liquid from entering her airways. She uses sequential sucking (multiple sucks before swallowing), with breathing in between. This helps her develop the necessary movements and muscles of her jaws that later enable her to chew.
Your baby hears and recognizes sounds from the moment she is born; she coos and babbles simple vowel-like noises.
6-12 Months: At 6 months, your baby may begin to show signs of teething. You may begin introducing solids. She can start with small amounts of thin, soupy consistencies; and move toward thicker textures that are necessary for oral development. Her gag reflex moves to the back of her mouth, and her tongue moves with her jaw. She can transfer food to the center of her mouth.
She begins to babble non-word cadences that reflect adult-like sentences. Toward 12 months of age, she may have single words for specific objects and be able to communicate wants with the context in certain situations. Around her first birthday, you can visit the dentist to have routine checkups.
12-24 Months: Her upper and lower molars usually appear between 12 and 15 months of age, followed by upper and lower canines. You can add in mashed foods, and small, chopped table foods as she progresses. Chewing these foods helps her develop proper tongue, jaw, and lip movements.
She will gradually have better control of her lips and breathing-swallowing pattern, allowing her to take longer drinks from cups and to close her lips while she chews. Her chewing pattern begins to shift to a rotary motion, versus an up-down movement.
Your child learns to say words with more than one syllable and simple statements that combine two words.
24 Months & Over: When your baby is 2 years old, most of her primary teeth will have erupted. Her last teeth to erupt are the upper and lower second molars. She can now eat a variety of foods from each food group. She can drink from a straw or cup, and easily retracts her tongue to swallow.
Language development in children varies, but sentences using multiple words usually occur around this age. Though the grammar may not be perfect, your child’s vocabulary will develop as she grows.
Tools for Baby’s Oral Health
There are a variety of tools that you can use on a daily basis to encourage healthy teeth & mouth development, supporting her speech development.
Clean Teeth Tools
Begin cleaning your baby’s gums in her first few weeks after birth. As she grows and begins teething, small openings may appear where her first teeth will erupt; bacteria can easily grow in these small pockets.
You can use a damp, clean muslin wipe to lightly wipe her gums after each feeding.
Continue cleaning with muslin wipes, or a silicone fingertip toothbrush (adult use only). Offer her teethers that have cleaning bristles built-in.
After her first teeth erupt, you can brush her teeth with a toothbrush that has soft bristles and serves as a teether, while cleaning at the same time.
As her teeth develop, you can transition to brushing her teeth after eating or before bedtime with a longer handle toothbrush to reach side and back molars (for adult use). At this stage, offer teethers for massaging side and back gums and molars.
As her dexterity develops, offer her a toddler toothbrush that has a loop, so she learns to brush safely, on her own. At the same time, you will need to continue brushing her teeth with a separate toothbrush to ensure that they get clean.
You can help maximize your baby’s oral and speech development by offering her a variety of foods and textures, and eating and drinking tools that match her developmental stage.
Begin solids, one at a time, using feeding spoons (you feed her with a soft-tipped spoon). In the beginning, use a bowl or food storage container that you can hold in your other hand, so that your child cannot grab it. Offering purees in pouches as part of a feeding program can be convenient and helpful. However, sucking from the spout on pouches exclusively, without using her mouth and lips to take food from spoons, can impact her chewing later.
As she reaches and grasps for spoons or food, she shows that she is able and ready to practice! Transition to learning spoons (baby learns to use a safety spoon, while you feed with a companion spoon). As she expands to various foods, a divided bowl with separate sections and suction on the base can be used to prevent spills.
As her fingers develop dexterity, offer small pieces of soft and mashed foods on a platemat on a table or high chair. You will need to accompany her eating with purees to make sure she gets enough food.
Around 12 months, your child may be ready to learn with adult-like designs that are safe for toddlers. Try using a divided plate with suction base and a kids’ cutlery set – complete with safety features, and still effective. Always ensure children’s flatware has dulled points, is easy to grip, and small enough for her hands. Wait until she is two years old to offer the knife and make sure you keep an eye on her as she uses it.
Your baby can begin to wean off the bottle to a sippy or straw cup by the time she is eating solids. Some parents may opt to go straight for open cups; while others transition from bottle to sippy or straw cups, or even a combination. Drinking from a bottle or sippy for too long can misshape the inside of your baby’s mouth. The non-malleable spouts force your baby to push her tongue against her teeth, later affecting her speech and oral development. Straws and open cups help your baby develop proper tongue movement, pushing the tongue upward to the roof of the mouth. Additionally, they build lip and cheek strength, and encourage healthy swallowing patterns.
Starting healthy behaviors at a young age, and even before your baby is born, can change the way your child develops. You can ensure proper oral development by choosing and teaching healthy choices from the beginning.
Note: The suggestions and ideas in this book are not intended to take the place of professional guidance or treatment; they are meant to complement the advice of your child’s health care provider, caretakers, and educators, while offering consolidated information to help you develop your intuition and make choices that fit with your own personal, religious, or spiritual philosophies. There is no guarantee as to the effects of the use of the recommendations and no liabilities can be taken. I believe that you can balance convenience with a conscious and natural lifestyle, and make prioritized decisions to ensure the health and well-being of your child.