Down Syndrome And Tongue Thrust: 4 Things Parents Need To Know

Posted on: 1 April 2016

Tongue thrust is an oral health disorder characterized by abnormal movement and positioning of the tongue. This disorder is very common among children with Down syndrome—most suffer from it—and parents need to be aware of the problem. Here are four things parents need to know about Down syndrome and tongue thrust.

What are the signs of tongue thrust?

Tongue thrust is very easy to identify. If your child has tongue thrust, you'll notice that their tongue protrudes from their mouth while they're speaking, eating or even while they're at rest. If your child's tongue is frequently protruding from their mouth, take them to a dentist for an evaluation.

How does Down syndrome cause tongue thrust?

Down syndrome affects both the structure and function of your child's oral tissues. These changes influence their oral motor skills, the skills that allow your child to move their oral muscles. Oral motor skills include things like the muscle tone and strength of the tongue, coordination of the tongue and the ability to move the tongue independent of the other oral muscles. The combination of these factors can mean that your child isn't able to control their tongue motion very well, which allows it to protrude out of their mouth.

Why is tongue thrust a concern?

Tongue thrust can make it hard for your child to eat properly. This is because their swallowing pattern is different from a normal swallow. Normally, when a person swallows, their lips are pursed, the tip of their tongue touches the back of their top teeth and the back of the tongue slopes downwards to guide the food to the esophagus. When a child with tongue thrust swallows, the back of the tongue pushes upwards, which slopes food away from the esophagus, and the tip protrudes from the mouth. Because of this unnatural swallowing pattern, you may notice that your child is choking on their food or choosing foods based on how easy they are to swallow.

Tongue thrust can also lead to dental problems. When your child's tongue protrudes from their mouth, it puts pressure on the backs of their upper front teeth. This constant pressure pushes the affected teeth forwards, creating an overbite. It may even cause an open bite, meaning that the upper and lower front teeth don't touch when your child bites down. An open bite makes eating and chewing difficult.

How do dentists manage tongue thrust?

If your dentist determines that your child has tongue thrust, they'll be referred to an orofacial myologist. Orofacial myologists are dental professionals that specialize in treating disorders of the orofacial muscles. This specialist will help your child learn to control their tongue more effectively and also learn how to swallow properly. Once your child's tongue thrusting is under control, the dental effects of the disorder can be corrected.

Your child may need orthodontic therapy to correct the dental effects of tongue thrusting. If your child has an overbite or open bite, their bite can be corrected with a combination of braces and elastic bands. Once the teeth have been corrected, they may need to wear a retainer to keep the teeth in their new positions. Some children with Down syndrome have strong gag reflexes that can make orthodontic treatments challenging, but your dentist can refer you to an orthodontist that has experience in treating other special needs children.

If your child has Down syndrome and their tongue protrudes from their mouth, they may have tongue thrust. Tongue thrust can cause serious dental problems for your child, so it needs to be treated promptly. Take your child to a dentist right away for an examination.