|MOUTH TOYS OPEN THE SENSORY DOORWAY
are designed to provide pleasure and comfort to the
mouths of infants and young children. Most toys are
designed for children who are at a developmental age when
mouthing behaviors are common. Because this occurs
primarily during teething, the majority of these toys are
marketed as "teethers" or "teething
toys." The idea that these same toys serve many
other purposes in development is new to many parents and
therapists. MOUTH-TOYS provide numerous learning
opportunities that introduce children to the sensory
world, and prepare the mouth for more complex feeding
Why do infants and children put toys and other
objects in their mouths?
At birth sensations in the mouth are more highly
developed than in any other part of the body. The mouth
is truly the baby's "window to the world." Many
babies use the mouth before they are born to suck their
fingers and make discoveries about their intrauterine
world. After birth babies continue to put their own hands
in the mouth, and suck or mouth the fingers of a parent,
the edge of a blanket, clothing, pacifiers, and other
objects that come in contact with the mouth. This
generalized mouthing predominates during the first 4-5
months of life. Through this type of mouthing the baby
becomes familiar with general sensations of softness,
firmness, and hardness. These sensations familiarize the
child with the sensations they will encounter as they
move from the nipple to a spoon or cup.
By 6 months infants are typically able to sit without
support, push up on their arms when lying on the tummy,
and reach out for toys. They have developed greater
stability in the trunk and shoulder girdle that creates a
foundation for more skillful movements of both the hand
and mouth. The child is now able to hold onto toys
without dropping them, and to move them around in the
mouth to explore all surfaces. The jaw makes more
skillful adjustments in opening and closing, the tongue
moves with greater freedom in the mouth, and the lips
come forward like a pair of small hands to feel the
surface of anything entering the mouth. With this new
discriminative mouthing, the child uses the mouth to
extract all types of sensory information from whatever
enters. By exploring the toy with the tongue, lips, and
jaw the child finds out about size, shape, surface
texture, taste, and weight. When children are introduced
to solid foods, they will encounter the same sensory
features that they have explored with toys. They are free
to expand their sensory awareness and discrimination and
learn how to move smaller pieces around and swallow
safely and comfortably.
Sensations from the gums draw the child's awareness to
the mouth during teething. This increases the desire to
put things in the mouth. Children discover sensations
that increase comfort, and increase their biting,
chewing, and oral exploration of toys. The infant who
lacks the coordination to chew and swallow food is
protected by an active gag reflex. The gag occurs when an
object or food touches the back 3/4 of the tongue. As
sensorimotor skills increase and the child is ready to
handle solid foods, the strong gag is no longer critical
to survival. Between 4 and 6 months most typically
developing babies reduce the strength of the gag through
placing their fingers and toys further back in the mouth.
Eventually the gag is only triggered when food is stuck
on back 1/4 of the tongue. This is a gradual process
which usually begins before the child is ready for lumpy
Are there different types of MOUTH-TOYS?
There are two major categories of MOUTH-TOYS. 1. Sensory
Awareness Toys. Some toys build simple awareness of a
sensations in the mouth. For example the Hand and Foot
Teethers and BounceBak have a smooth surface and
shapes similar to body parts that the child has been
exploring. Massagers such as the Humbug and
Aquassager focus on a smooth surface and vibratory input.
Discrimination Toys. Other toys offer more complex
sensory opportunities. The Textured Fruit Toys
are firm with a wide variety of surface textures.
Multiple contrasts are offered to the mouth as the child
explores each of the three toys, and turns each toy in
the mouth. A gentle vanilla scent is incorporated in the
toy, giving the child experience with smell as well as
shape and texture.
The Dessert Mouth
Toys and Teethersaurus dinosaurs offer contrasts in
surface texture, but their primary value lies in the
contrast between a hard and softer-firm texture within
the same toy.
The Exploration Beads feature
separate objects strung together in a flexible ring. The
circle of fruit beads includes soft, bright shapes of a
banana, apple, orange, and grape.
Why are MOUTH-TOYS important for children with
Many children with feeding problems lacked the
opportunity to develop generalized and discriminative
mouthing skills when they were infants. A child may have
difficulty getting the hands to the mouth or problems
holding on to toys. Pain or discomfort in the mouth from
suctioning, intubation, or oral surgery may result in the
belief that any sensation in the mouth hurts and should
be avoided. Lack of positive oral stimulation when a
child is given a nasogastric feeding tube may contribute
to hypersensitivity and oral sensory defensiveness.
Tactile defensiveness in the hands and mouth may make it
uncomfortable to bring toys to the mouth. When feeding
utensils and food are offered, children may reject them
because they are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the
sensations. Lumpy and textured foods provide great
challenges. Sensory memories may remind children to take
care of themselves, and they will avoid situations and
sensations associated with discomfort to the mouth.
Children are more comfortable with spoons, cups, and food
textures when they have had prior experience with the
same sensations in toys.
How do I choose the best MOUTH-TOYS for a child?
A child's own body is the first toy. As children mouth
their hands, they receive sensory feedback from both the
hands and the mouth. Introduce MOUTH-TOYS after the child
has had many opportunities to explore hands, fingers,
feet, toys and other body parts with the mouth. The first
MOUTH-TOYS should be easy to hold, and simple in shape
and surface texture. These toys will build the child's
general awareness of the oral sensations from the toy.
After the child is comfortable with sensory awareness
toys, you can introduce sensory discrimination toys.
Select these according to the child's sensory needs and
preferences, interests, and developmental level. Some
children prefer softer toys; others do better with firmer
ones. Some children become overwhelmed if the toy makes a
sound. Others seek sound.
A child who likes a soft surface may enjoy a toy like
Terry Ducky. This toy would not interest a child who
prefers a hard surface. A Storyland Barn Teether or the
Dessert Mouth Toys would be more appropriate.
Are MOUTH-TOYS appropriate for older children?
Even adults have their MOUTH-TOYS. They chew on the
end of a pen, chew gum, and smoke cigarettes. School-age
children chew erasers, crunch hard candy, and hold
pencils between their teeth. Many older children who lack
experience with mouthing will not make a comfortable
transition to textured foods without oral-sensory
experience with non-food objects. Children who have
sensory integrative problems often need oral stimulation
for self-organization. Toys that are more "age
appropriate" can be selected. Small Sesame StreetTM or DisneyTM
figures are popular toys for children in preschool and
kindergarten. Action figures are enjoyed by children in
elementary school. Well-strung necklaces offer
opportunities for casual oral manipulation. Exploration
of shape and size in a set of spoons or cups can be
helpful and interesting to teenagers.
Are MOUTH-TOYS safe for children who have teeth or
a bite reflex?
Most MOUTH-TOYS were designed for infants and younger
children without teeth and a strong bite. With
supervision and common sense, toys can be used safely
with older children. Toys used in the mouth should be
carefully inspected every time they are given to a child.
If chewing marks are present, pull that area of the toy
to be sure that a piece is not getting weak or loose.
Squeakers in toys that meet safety standards in infant
toys may become dangerous if the toy is given to a child
who likes to bite hard objects. No toy should be placed
between the teeth of a child with a tonic bite reflex.
Suzanne Evans Morris, Ph.D.
1124 Roberts Mountain Road
Faber, Virginia 22938
This paper is a working
draft and multiple copies may not be reproduced without
written permission of the author
© Suzanne Evans Morris, 1997 All Rights Reserved