A tongue thrust is a habitual pattern of movement or rest that occurs when we place our tongue against our teeth. Everyone is born with a tongue thrust, however most children outgrow it as their speech and language skills develop. Tongue thrust is also known as orofacial myofunctional disorder, dentofacial myofunctional disorder or reverse swallow.
According to Jordan Weber, speech language pathologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers, "The pattern of movement during a tongue thrust ranges, but the look of a tongue thrust at rest is consistent and obvious."
"Think of a baby sitting in a car seat or high chair; most likely you would picture a baby with an open mouth and their tongue sticking out of their mouth. That is a tongue thrust," she explains. "If the baby were to continue to hold that position for a prolonged period of time, it could cause serious problems."
Untreated tongue thrust can cause:
- Movement of teeth in abnormal positions and deviation in jaw development
- Speech production errors, such as lisping
- Development of atypical swallowing patterns
For most of us, our tongue rests against the roof of our mouth behind the upper front teeth. In individuals with a tongue thrust, their tongue is often resting at the bottom of their mouth.
Signs and causes of tongue thrust:
- A history of allergies, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, frequent colds, ear infections, snoring and thumb sucking
- A family history of tongue thrust
- Breathing through the mouth, with an open mouth posture
If a child's tonsils and adenoids are swollen or nasal congestion is present, they compensate and force their tongue forward and out so they have room to breathe through the mouth. The jaw will relax and teeth will separate to provide a comfortable space for the tongue. Sometimes the teeth can separate so much that a child may have a large space or open bite between their upper and lower front teeth.
A tongue thrust is a difficult habit to notice and individuals can have one for years without recognition. It's often diagnosed by an orthodontist, doctor, dentist or a speech language pathologist.
"Generally, if your child is diagnosed with a tongue thrust, he or she will need to learn how to swallow properly," says Weber. "Often speech language pathologists provide exercises for children to learn the new swallow pattern and eventually it becomes a conscious habit."