What is our Gustatory System?
This is what gives us the ability to taste. This system is very interconnected with the olfactory system (smell) and oral motor system. Oral motor skills are the movements of the muscles in the mouth, jaw, tongue, lips and cheeks. The strength, coordination and control of these oral structures are the foundation for feeding related tasks, such as sucking, biting, crunching, licking and chewing. They are also important for speech articulation and facial expression.
When we think about taste it is common to just think about eating and drinking. There are main branches of the Gustatory System: oral motor, smell, and taste. Oral motor is defined as it’s about the way the senses are interconnected and work together inside the mouth. This system enables us to not only taste but to chew, swallow, and communicate.The way food tastes comes from a combination of taste and smell.
How does the oral motor play a role in feeding difficulties with our children?
Oral motor is what creates senses within a child’s mouth. How we move our lips, tongue and the efficiency of our chewing muscles change and shape the texture of food. It is important to look at how the lips, cheeks and tongue work together when eating a variety of foods. Often children with tactile defensiveness try to swallow quicker due to difficulty with textures; this can lead to increased gagging due to too large of a food bolus when swallowing. On the other hand our children with a decreased sensory threshold often don’t know how much to put in their mouth or how hard to chew a food bolus.
Oral motor is also related to the proprioceptive system. The jaw muscles are the largest in our bodies. Therefore, it is not unusual for a child to seek proprioceptive input (calming) through their oral motor skills. This is often with children who suck or chew on their clothes, fingers, and/or any object they can find. It can be very calming and regulating for a child to use their oral motor system (biting, chewing, sucking) to help with sensory modulation and self soothing.
If your child is demonstrating difficulty with eating it often is just a small piece of the puzzle to look at a type of food alone. Many times food is one of the few things that a child can control and/or predict. For example, when a child only likes a specific brand of chicken nuggets. This can be in part due to control and trying to help modulate their sensory system. When a child has to try a new type of food; it can be very overstimulating to their nervous system. Therefore, they don’t know how to take smaller bites of a larger chicken nugget, chew it 2 more times so they don’t gag or eat it with sauce as we might do when trying a different food texture of a preferred food. Then a preferred food that is typically calming and organizing becomes disorganized and overwhelming.
Common Red Flags for Gustatory System:
Difficulty sucking or using a straw.
Often very picky eaters and have predictable food aversions.
Chews on everything- including non-food items such as clothes.
Grinds teeth or bites on lips/tongue.
Here are some great tools and tips to help with oral motor:
Using Water bottle with a Chew Valve: Provides sucking and biting at the same time for increased sensory input.
Crunchy Snacks: Allow for increased proprioceptive input (calming).
Vibrating Toothbrush: Allows for increased input and helps to desensitize our children with a lot of tactile sensitivities.
Blowing Games: Blowing cotton balls using a straw and/or blowing bubbles
Faces in the Mirror: Making a variety of “copy cat” faces in the mirror is helpful for developing oral motor awareness and strength.
Tactile Bins: Working on desensitizing the tactile system with a variety of textures.
Feeding Plates: Helps to portion out bite sizes, provide a clear number of bites, allow you to work in preferred foods with non-preferred foods.
Chewing Options: These allow a more appropriate option for chewing than on clothes or pencils. The key is to give in small controlled amounts, when given all the time it increases efficiency and the amount of input.
The taste and oral motor system system can be very helpful in providing children modulation. When looking at your child’s sensory threshold; it is important to assess their oral motor as part of their sensory system. For example, if you notice that anytime your child experiences stress or discomfort they chew on objects, suck on objects or bite their lips they are trying to use their oral motor system to calm and regulate. As parents and caregivers we can read their cues and help provide functional strategies such as those listed above to better organize and understand their sensory system.