oral motor developmental milestones

Oral Motor Developmental Milestones: From Baby To Toddler

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As a dental health care professional and a parent, I’ve navigated the exhilarating journey of my child’s early development with both a professional lens and a personal heart.

The anticipation of each developmental milestone, especially those related to oral motor skills, was a path filled with excitement and a bit of anxiety.

From eagerly awaiting the emergence of that first tooth around 6 months to ensuring the healthy development of essential eating and speaking skills, my experiences have deeply intertwined my professional knowledge with my personal journey.

In this article, we will highlight all of the oral motor developmental milestones so you know exactly what to expect! We will also discuss some red flags to watch out for and give you some ideas for oral motor therapy and oral motor exercises to improve your child’s oral motor skills.

It’s important to remember, that every child is different and just because your child may not be hitting every oral motor milestone doesn’t necessarily mean there is any need to be concerned.

If you ever have any concerns or questions regarding your child’s development, make sure to consult your pediatrician. 

Oral motor developmental milestones by stage

The third trimester of pregnancy 

Your child’s oral motor skills started in the womb while in your third trimester of pregnancy! Many of the skills necessary for them to successfully be able to breastfeed were being developed and practiced before delivery.

 By 37 weeks post-conceptual age, all your baby’s oral skills needed once they are born have been developed!

During the third trimester, significant oral motor milestones for a fetus include:

1. Sucking reflex development: Your fetus (baby while in the uterus) begins to exhibit a sucking reflex, practicing the coordinated movements required for feeding.

2. Swallowing practice: Swallowing movements become more refined as the fetus ingests amniotic fluid, contributing to oral motor skill development.

3. Facial muscle strength: Facial muscles, particularly those involved in mouth and jaw movements, continue to strengthen in preparation for feeding.

4. Rooting reflex: The fetus displays the rooting reflex, turning its head towards stimuli that touch the cheek or mouth, an early sign of seeking nourishment.

5. Tongue movement: Development of coordinated tongue movements, essential for sucking and later, for more complex oral motor functions.

It’s important to note that while these reflexes and movements are observed in the third trimester, further oral motor development occurs during infancy and early childhood.

The 0-3 month stage

The oral motor developmental milestones during the first three months of life are crucial for the establishment of how children develop basic feeding and sensory skills. Here’s a more detailed breakdown:

0-1 month:

1. Sucking reflex: Newborns are born with a strong sucking reflex. When something touches the roof of their mouth (such as a breast or bottle nipple), they automatically begin to suck.

2. Rooting reflex: Infants turn their heads towards stimuli that touch the cheek or mouth, helping them locate the source of potential nourishment.

1-2 months:

1. Refinement of sucking: The sucking reflex becomes more coordinated, and babies develop a rhythm for sucking during feeding.

2. Swallowing coordination: Infants start to coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing, which is crucial for efficient and safe feeding.

3. Mouth opening: Babies become more adept at opening their mouths wider during feedings, facilitating a better latch to the breast or bottle.

2-3 months:

1. Sucking efficiency: The sucking reflex and muscles become more efficient, allowing babies to extract more milk during each feeding session.

2. Tongue movement: Improved control over tongue movements helps with more coordinated sucking and swallowing.

3. Increased feeding intervals: As sucking becomes more efficient, babies may go longer between feedings as they can consume more milk at each session.

4. Social smiles: Babies may start to smile in response to familiar faces, which can enhance the bonding experience during feeding.

General considerations:

Caregivers need to be responsive to the baby’s cues, feeding on demand, and paying attention to signs of hunger and fullness.

The first few months lay the foundation for oral motor skills that will continue to develop as the baby grows. Feeding your baby can truly be a great bonding time so make sure to cherish these moments!

Responsive caregiving, frequent interactions, and a nurturing feeding environment contribute to a positive oral motor development experience for the infant. If any concerns arise during this period, such as trouble swallowing, consulting with a pediatrician or lactation consultant can provide valuable guidance and support.

The 3-6 Month Stage

Here are more detailed oral motor developmental milestones for the 3-6 month period, with information drawn from reputable sources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

3-4 months:

1. Midline orientation: Infants become more aware of the midline of their body, making it easier for them to bring their hands to the center for grasping objects, including bottles or the breast.

2. Hand-to-mouth coordination: Improved hand-eye coordination allows babies to bring their hands to their mouths more deliberately.

3. Head control: Enhanced head control allows infants to sit with support, which can influence their feeding posture.

4-5 months:

1. Introduction of solid foods: According to the AAP, most infants are ready to begin solid foods around 6 months, but some may show signs of readiness as early as 4-5 months. This can include an increased ability to sit with support and a diminished tongue-thrust reflex.

2. Chewing exploration: Babies may start to make chewing motions, even if they don’t have teeth yet. This is part of their exploration of new textures and sensations.

3. Early mouthing of objects: The mouthing reflex continues as babies explore and learn about their environment through their mouths.

5-6 months:

1. Teething begins: The eruption of the first teeth typically begins around 6 months of age. Teething can affect a baby’s interest and comfort in trying new textures and chewing. It is important to start caring for your child’s teeth early on to ensure good dental hygiene. There is so much new technology in dentistry to help both your child and you maintain good oral health.

2. Texture introduction: Gradual introduction of thicker textures and pureed foods, moving beyond exclusively liquid diets. This is often when you start spoon-feeding.

3. Sippy cup introduction: Around 6 months, caregivers may introduce a sippy cup to transition from bottle to cup. This supports oral motor development and independence in drinking.

The 6-9 month stage

The 6-9 month period is marked by significant advancements in oral motor development as babies continue to explore a variety of textures and feeding experiences. Here are more detailed milestones for oral motor skills:

6-7 months:

1. Refinement of chewing skills: As the first teeth continue to emerge, babies refine their chewing skills. Soft and mashed foods become more manageable. They begin to develop refined movements in their jaw and start to create jaw stability.

2. Improved sitting skills: Enhanced sitting abilities allow babies to sit with minimal support, providing better stability during feeding and sitting in a high chair.

3. Introduction of finger foods: Around 7 months, babies can start experimenting with soft finger foods. This promotes self-feeding and further develops fine motor skills.

4. Enhanced hand-eye coordination: Improved coordination between hand and mouth facilitates successful self-feeding experiences.

7-8 months:

1. Development of pincher grasp: Babies start to use their thumb and forefinger in a pinching motion, allowing for more precise grasping of small objects and self-feeding.

2. Transition to lumpy textures: Progressing from purees to lumpy textures helps babies adapt to a wider range of food consistencies, promoting proper oral motor development.

3. Independence in drinking: Babies become more independent in holding and drinking from a sippy cup, enhancing their oral motor skills.

8-9 months:

1. Increased chewing efficiency: Chewing skills become more efficient, allowing babies to handle a greater variety of textures, including finely chopped or minced foods.

2. Advanced finger feeding: Improved pincher grasp and hand-eye coordination contribute to advanced finger feeding. Babies can pick up smaller pieces of food and self-feed more confidently.

3. Introduction of straw cup: Introducing a straw cup around 9 months promotes different oral motor movements and helps with the transition from sippy cups to regular cups.

4. Expression of food preferences: Babies may begin to show preferences for certain tastes and textures, indicating increased awareness and sensory exploration. It is for this very reason that I start feeding my kids vegetables before any other type of solid food. I have found this helps them develop a love for vegetables and makes it easier when they start to become ‘picky eaters’! Introduce a variety of nutritious foods gradually to ensure a balanced diet and support overall development.

The 9-12 month stage

The 9-12 month period is characterized by increased independence in feeding and the continued development of oral motor skills. Here are more detailed milestones for this stage:

9-10 months:

1. Refinement of chewing skills: Chewing skills become more advanced, allowing babies to manage a variety of textures, including soft meats, cooked vegetables, and more complex finger foods. This in part is due to your child’s ability to sit and control their body movements.

2. Increased independence in self-feeding: Babies become more independent in self-feeding, using their fingers or utensils with greater control.

3. Handling a variety of food consistencies: Babies can handle a wider range of food consistencies, from mashed and chopped to soft solids, contributing to a more diverse diet.

4. Exploration of table foods: Introducing small portions of family meals encourages the exploration of new flavors and textures.

10-11 months:

1. Pincer grasp mastery: The pincer grasp becomes more refined, allowing babies to pick up smaller pieces of food with precision.

2. Introduction of cup with lid: Babies may transition to using a cup with a lid, further developing their oral motor skills as they adjust to different drinking mechanisms.

3. Experimentation with utensils: Babies may show interest in using utensils such as spoons, though initially, this may be messy and require assistance.

11-12 months:

1. Increased independence with utensils: Babies continue to improve their self-feeding skills with utensils. While they may not be fully proficient, they can actively participate in mealtime. Encourage self-feeding with appropriate utensils and finger foods to support the development of fine motor skills and independence.

2. Transition to table foods: By the end of the first year, many babies are transitioning to a diet that closely resembles that of the rest of the family, including a variety of textures and flavors.

3. Improved speech-like sounds: Babbling and experimenting with speech-like sounds become more pronounced as oral motor skills contribute to the development of communication skills.

The 12-18 month stage

1. Lip closure: Your child should be able to now chew and swallow with their mouth closed.

2. Chew firmer foods: At this stage, your child’s oral motor skills have developed enough that they can start handling firmer foods such as cheese, softer vegetables and fruit, and even pasta.

The 18-36 month stage

1. Independence: By now all of your hard work and training has paid off! Your child can feed themselves independently! Along with independence comes picky eating. This is the stage where you will have to fight that battle.

2. Refined jaw abilities: Full jaw strength and motions have been developed and all varieties of foods can be given to your child. They should be able to handle tougher foods like meat and raw vegetables.

Red flags during oral motor skills development

Making sure your child is hitting their milestones with oral motor skills can feel overwhelming at times. If your child is experiencing a delay in these skills it can affect their ability to eat. This in turn can impact their experience with food as well as their ability to meet the necessary nutritional needs of their growing body.

Here are some red flags to watch out for when monitoring your child’s oral motor development

  • Inability to stay latched while breastfeeding or bottle feeding
  • Food falls out of their mouth while eating
  • Difficulty sticking tongue out or constantly having tongue hang out of mouth
  • Let food sit in the mouth for an extended period of time without swallowing
  • Sucks rather than swallows food
  • Difficulty with table and finger food as a toddler

Know that this is not an exhaustive list. If you have concerns about whether your child is meeting oral motor development milestones appropriately it may be wise to consult your child’s pediatrician or even a occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist.

Exercises to support oral motor skills

To get the best results with exercises to support your child’s oral motor skills development, get a consultation with an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist. These healthcare professionals will be able to identify specific delays in your child’s oral motor development and create an oral motor therapy plan tailored to your child’s needs.

Some exercises that may be helpful for your child include

  • Blowing raspberries
  • Brushing teeth with an electric toothbrush
  • Licking popsicle with tongue outside the mouth
  • Clicking tongue
  • Making silly faces with lips
  • Blowing kisses
  • Play with vibrating teething toys

Dr. Chelsea Pinto, a dentist specializing in infant/toddler tongue and lip ties, also shares some exercises to help promote oral motor skills in infants.

Your child will naturally develop these skills and practice these kinds of exercises. If you feel your child needs help developing these skills, seeking professional help can often give you the support you need and help alleviate the stresses that can come with feeding your infant/toddler.


Witnessing your child’s growth and achieving oral developmental milestones is a journey filled with both joy and challenges.

Drawing from my background in dental health and my personal experiences as a parent, I understand the nuances of this path. While this article serves as a guide, remember that each child’s journey is unique, and variations are perfectly normal.

If concerns arise, do not hesitate to consult with a pediatric dentist or your child’s pediatrician for personalized advice.

Their expertise can offer you peace of mind and ensure your child is on the right track.

Above all, cherish these fleeting moments with your child. Embrace each milestone with love and patience, celebrating the small victories and the big leaps.

Your support and encouragement are the greatest gifts you can offer as they navigate through these early years.

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