What Is Oral-Motor Therapy, and Why Would a Child Need It?

Wrongly used by most speech therapists, oral-motor therapy uses a variety of exercises to develop awareness, strength, coordination, and mobility of the oral muscles. For example, it may be used to improve muscle tone of the face. It can also be used to reduce tongue thrust (the protrusion of the tongue from the mouth).

Oral-motor therapy is often used as a component of feeding therapy.

In the case of feeding therapy, an experienced therapist will first determine why a child is having difficulty. The therapist will then create an oral-motor-feeding plan individualized for the child. For example, if a child is not able to move his or her tongue to the side (lateralize), that leads to an inability to move food to the molars for chewing. In this case oral-motor exercises to learn how to move the tongue to the side of the mouth should be initiated.

It is Not for Speech Disorders

There is no current research to support the use of oral-motor therapy to treat speech disorders. Unfortunately, research shows that 8 out of 10 speech therapists use oral-motor therapy when attempting to treat speech disorders. And parents of these children are often sent home with 30 minutes of frustrating oral-motor exercises. These exercises include, but are not limited to, having their children blow bubbles or whistles. They may also lick peanut butter off the roof of their mouths or a tongue depressor. I know that parents get frustrated by these exercises because they tell me when they call for a 2nd opinion. They also tell me that that they work diligently to do what the therapist has been asking of them, but they see very little if any results.

When parents do not see progress, or understand why something is being done, it leads to noncompliance with therapy homework. Everyone needs to see results. Achieving results helps parents and their children to keep working hard to achieve therapy goals.

Can Oral-Motor Therapy be Useful for Speech Therapy?

While research does not support the use of oral-motor therapy for speech disorders, that does not mean that it can’t be helpful for speech therapy. For example, a case in which I would use oral-motor therapy to “help” speech clarity is when saliva is collecting in the mouth and causing slushy-speech. However, this slushy-speech is not a “speech” disorder. It is difficulty swallowing saliva that is causing the problem with speech clarity. That distinction is important. In this case we would work on oral-motor awareness of pooling saliva, increased frequency of swallowing, as well as the strength and coordination of the oral musculature. The goal would be to eliminate the difficulty swallowing that is adversely impacting speech quality.

Oral-motor therapy can be very helpful, or it can be a waste of time. It depends on how, and for what, it is being used. An experienced therapist should be able to explain exactly what they are doing with your child and why. So, you should never be afraid to ask. If your therapist is offended by your inquiry, I would consider it a red flag. And I would suggest looking for another provider.

If your child is receiving therapy it is important for you to be involved and ask questions.  And if your speech language pathologist is recommending oral-motor therapy, it is important for you to understand why. If not, you are at risk of wasting time and money.


Posted in

Isa Marrs

Isa Marrs is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in articulation, pragmatic language and feeding disorders in children. Read More