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adult treatment for tongue thrust

Learning to Swallow

Did you know babies are born with an instinct that involves thrusting the tongue forward in order to latch on to a nipple? And did you know that at about 8 months of age, these infants gradually find a better way to swallow, one that retires action at the tip of the tongue in favor of action at the back of the tongue?

I never got that memo.

adult treatment for tongue thrust

News to Me

I had no clue I am a tongue thruster. Nobody ever told me. Not my pediatrician, not my dentist, not my first orthodontist when I was a teenager. Even my mom was surprised when I told her recently.

It wasn’t until my current orthodontist said that unless I correct this Very Bad Habit I’ve had for my entire life (also called “immature swallow” — responsible and straight-A me flippin’ adores that diagnosis), all the time, trouble, and expense of Braces Round 2 will be for naught.

What’s the Big Deal?

What’s the big deal about a problem I never knew I had?

Well, tongue thrusting leads to what’s called an open bite. It means that even if I have straight teeth, I could  still have a misaligned bite. The top and bottom teeth, each straight on their own, won’t stay lined up. Teeth will continue to move out of alignment, eventually leading to dental distress.

“Most people swallow between 800-1500 times each day. A person with a tongue thrust problem exerts at least a pound of pressure against the teeth every time he or she swallows. “ Source.

In more severe cases, immature swallowing can be inefficient, ineffective, and downright sloppy. It can impair a person’s speech.

Why Did This Happen?

Maybe it’s because I had medical problems when I was a child. Or maybe it’s because I was a thumb-sucker until third grade. Maybe there’s no definitive reason I have an oral myofunctional disorder.

Though I feel like a freak — and an immature one at that — maybe I’m not.  One site says that a tongue thrust type of swallow “is present in all babies, in about half of the population of 5-year-olds, and in about one third of 8-year-olds; it is also present in one-fourth to one-third of adults.”

So What Now?

I find myself in speech therapy. Not exactly learning to speak, but relearning how to swallow. I should have started earlier on in my current orthodontia journey because I won’t be getting my braces off until I figure this out.

At first, I thought how hard can this be? All I need to do is stop touching my tongue to the back of my teeth. And I did become more mindful. I did reduce the tongue thrusting. But not by much. Amid the movement promoted by my orthodontia, I could feel the countermovement still being caused by my unruly tongue.

Turns out it’s not just a matter of paying better attention. It’s a whole process of retraining.

“Trying to do this [on your own] does not usually result in a permanent change. Learning the new swallowing technique involves more than a position change. It is a series of movements requiring the coordinated efforts of eight oral-facial muscles. Normally, people with a tongue thrust problem use only one or two muscles.” Source.

So yay. I’m getting “myo-functional tongue thrust therapy” every week to strengthen and recalibrate different parts of my tongue, lips and jaw. The therapist has me practicing slurp swallows (fore-tongue), cha-cha swallows (mid-tongue) and kick swallows (back-tongue). Three times a day I do a set of that week’s exercises.

In this I am not immature. I am diligent. I will catch up to all those 8-month-old babies who got the memo.

Do you have experience with tongue thrusting* or an immature swallow*?

* I swear this post is not a sly attempt to get pageviews from googling pervs.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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12 Responses

  1. And now I’m assessing my swallowing!

    Seriously though, I’m amazed that we’re relearning about anatomy and how things that were assumed not to be that big of a deal or missed are now being connected with other problems. And it’s so much harder to correct these in adults!!!

    May the tongue exercises lead to quick improvements so you can get your braces off.

  2. I totally swallowed a zillion times during this post and tried to see if I am also a tongue-thruster… Wow, a POUND of force? Jeezum. You, milady, have a powerful tongue if an immature swallow. I hope the speech therapy goes well, and I have faith in your diligence. You’ve got this!

  3. A friend of mine is a swallowing specialist in Denver. Let me know if you want her info. I *think* the main condition she treats is dysphagia but there are others too.

  4. You can’t win. Your teeth want to move forward anyway – that’s why elderly people often have crowded bottom teeth. I had a retainer to move my teeth back in line (after repeated whacks pushed them out of place – I’m so graceful!), and wearing it while I slept caused me to grind a hole in one of my back molars…which is generally held together by a filling, so it can’t be patched. Sometimes, I think it would be easier to just pull them all and drink for the rest of my days! But I do like chewing my food…

    Good luck learning how to swallow like an adult! Or an 8 month old – whichever. 🙂

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