Most babies at some point pass through a stage where they chew on their tongue. Like many things babies do as they grow, this behavior is befuddling for some parents, and worrying for others. After all, your instinct is to protect your child from pain, so it’s alarming to see them doing something you think might hurt.
We’ll start with the good news: in most cases, babies don’t chew their tongues hard enough to hurt or damage it. A baby chewing on tongue is also completely normal, and often something your child will grow out of within the span of a few weeks.
It can still be confusing, though, especially if it seems to be more aggressive or going on longer than you feel like it should. Let’s clear things up by looking at the reasons babies chew their tongues and what parents can do if they’re concerned.
Why Do Babies Chew On Their Tongues?
Like most infant behaviors, there’s no one reason why they chew on their tongues. The most likely explanation depends largely on your baby’s age and stage of development. Every baby develops at their own pace, so the age ranges given here aren’t set in stone. That said, you can consider these typical age ranges, along with your baby’s other developmental milestones, to help you hone in on why they’re chewing their tongue.
Tongue chewing in newborns is usually a side-effect of their sucking reflex. When something touches the roof of a newborn’s mouth, they instinctively start sucking to feed. If their tongue is sticking out while they do this motion, it can look like they’re gumming it or chewing on it. Newborns may also do this when they’re hungry.
At this age, tongue chewing is likely a self-soothing measure, similar to rubbing their face or sucking on their lower lip. This is an extension of the sucking reflex. Babies learn a positive association with the chewing motion, and so they do it when they’re tired, anxious, or hungry to make them feel better.
This is around the age most babies start exploring and discovering parts of their body, and that includes their tongue. The most likely reason for their tongue chewing behavior is that they find it fun and are experiencing new sensations as they become aware of the parts of their mouth and how they work.
There’s a wide time span for when a baby’s milk teeth start to come in—some are born with a few in their mouth, while others don’t start teething until as late as 12 months. Most babies, though, start teething at around 5-6 months. Teething babies will chew on just about anything soft that’s around their mouth, and that includes their own tongue, to relieve the pain and irritation of their teeth coming in. If your baby has started chewing more in general, especially if this is accompanied by drooling or inflammation of their gums, teething is a likely reason.
This is the age most babies start showing they’re ready for solid foods. Chewing on their tongue is a part of this, part of a behavior called the tongue-thrust reflex, which they use to push food out of their mouth so they don’t choke. At this age, tongue chewing is an important milestone, indicating they’re learning how to use their tongue to eat solid food.
Along with eating, the tongue is an important organ for speech, and in this age range babies are starting to understand what that means. Before they say their first words, you may notice more activity around their mouth, as they make different shapes with their lips, move their tongue around, and make noises and nonsense syllables. All of these movements are part of them discovering language by mimicking what they’ve seen other people do around them.
Baby Chewing On Tongue Solutions
In most cases, you don’t need to do anything—as you can see from the above section, there are a lot of reasons your baby might be chewing their tongue and most are perfectly healthy and normal. That said, if you’re worried, there are some things you can try to stop the behavior.
- Check for signs that they’re hungry. If your baby’s tongue chewing is caused by the sucking reflex, it will stop once they’ve had something to eat. Other indications of hunger include opening and closing their mouth, or smacking their lips, along with sticking out or chewing on their tongue.
- Give them a toy to chew instead. For teething babies, chewing on something cool can be a big relief. Chilled teething toys are great for this, or even a damp washcloth can do the trick. This will be more appealing to chew on than their tongue.
- Distract them with something else. If your baby is just chewing on their tongue for fun, you can usually make them stop doing it by offering something else to focus on. Offer them a favorite toy or pick them up for a walk around the room, so they have something else to focus on.
What If My Baby Bites Their Tongue?
This is what most parents are worried about when their child chews their tongue once they have teeth. In most cases, babies won’t bite down hard enough to actually hurt, but accidents can happen, and that pain is likely to draw a very unpleasant reaction from your little one.
First things first, stay calm and don’t panic. Babies are very sensitive to emotions, so they’ll only get more upset if you are. If their tongue is bleeding, use a clean cloth or gauze patch to apply pressure to the cut. You can dampen it with cool water first to add some extra relief.
In most cases, babies don’t do much damage even if they bite their tongue, and it should heal fine on its own. If you’re worried, though, you can call your pediatrician for advice and next steps.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
While most tongue chewing is harmless, there are some specific situations that you should call your pediatrician:
- If they’re in pain. A healthy baby might accidentally bite their tongue, but they won’t keep repeating a motion that’s hurting them. If they’re crying or rubbing at their mouth while chewing their tongue, or showing other signs of being in pain, take them to the doctors to find out what’s wrong.
- They keep doing it after around 12 months. By the 1-year mark, babies should have fully discovered their mouths, learned to use their tongue, and stopped the tongue-thrust and sucking reflexes. Aside from late teethers, if a child keeps chewing on their tongue after about 12 months, this could be a sign of anomalies in their mouth development, like improper positioning of the tongue or an oversized tongue. A pediatrician can tell you if this is the case, and what the next steps are to correct the problem if so.
The Final Word on Babies Chewing Their Tongues
A lot of the strange things babies do are just their way of discovering their world and learning how their bodies work, and chewing on their tongues is no exception. In most cases, it’s nothing to worry about. We hope this article has set your mind at ease, and given you some insights into your baby’s behavior!