Make a Silly Face! Oral Motor Imitation: What Is It and Why Should You Target It?

Do you remember the first time your child made that cute little “raspberry” sound? What about the first time he or she blew a kiss of stuck out his or her tongue?  Did you know that these seemingly small (yet adorable) moments are actually important building blocks towards your child’s speech, language, and feeding development?

What are oral motor movements?

Just as we develop gross motor movements (e.g., walking) and fine motor movements (e.g., grasping), we also develop oral motor movements that impact our ability to speak and eat. While any movement made by your lips, tongue, or oral structures are considered an oral motor movement, the following are some specific movements that are beneficial for development as well as highly visual, thus increasing your child’s ability to imitate.

  • Opening mouth: The basis of speech, opening the jaw is imperative for both articulation (speech sounds) and feeding.
  • Lip pucker: “Kissy face.” Lip pucker strengthens lips, which helps with producing bilabial sounds (i.e., /p, b/) as well as controlling food and saliva.
  • Tongue protrusion: Sticking the tongue out helps with a variety of speech sounds (specifically lingual sounds).
  • Tongue lateralization: Moving the tongue from side-to-side helps with a variety of speech sounds, as well as chewing and swallowing food.

How does imitation of these movements impact development?

Imitation of movements, including oral motor movements, is a skill that toddlers master before words emerge. Some children are able to produce specific oral motor movements independently, but have difficulty imitating them on command. While oral motor imitation varies among children, once a child is able to consistently produce the movement independently, we would expect them to imitate it fairly consistently. Continuing to provide repetitive models of the movement you’re eliciting will go a long way in encouraging your child to imitate. If your child consistently has difficulty imitating movements that he or she can produce spontaneously and demonstrates difficulty with speech and language skills, an evaluation could be warranted to determine if he or she is demonstrating some difficulties with motor planning.

How can I target oral motor imitation?

It can actually be quite simple to practice oral motor imitation! The only two things you really need are you and your child; however, there are some tips and tricks to eliciting imitation. If your child is very young, simply engaging with your child by making silly faces is perfect! You can also add oral motor movements to books (e.g., pucker face when reading about a duck, etc.). If your child is an older baby, toddler, or school-aged, the mirror can be a wonderful teaching tool. While I typically prefer low-tech modes of practice, taking silly “selfies” or using apps with photo filters can also be a motivating tool!

Questions or concerns?

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s ability to imitate oral motor movements, reduced oral motor movement, or concerns regarding speech, language, or feeding development, please contact us at info@playworkschicago.com or 773-332-9439.

Sarah Lydon, MA, CCC-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist

Photo Credit: Chayene Rafaela on Unsplash

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