Sucking vs Suckling and Mouth Development

March 18, 2017

I’m Brooke
I'm a speech therapist specializing in early language, but more importantly, I'm a mom of a toddler who has been on her own journey with physical and occupational therapy
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Sucking vs Sucking

Did you know that babies are born with reflexes that assist them with feeding until they are ready to do the movements on their own? There are 7 reflexes that help your baby with feeding. Most of these reflexes “integrate” or disappear within the first year of life or shortly after.  Two of these reflexes, the swallowing reflex and the gag reflex, continue throughout the life. Read about the rest of your baby’s reflexes here 

The suckling reflex involves a front to back movement of the tongue. The tongue is deeply cupped and this allows the infant to extract liquid from a breast or bottle.  It is the same motion children use when sucking on a pacifier. This reflex comes under the baby’s control around 2-3 months and should disappear or “integrate” between 6-12 months.

The action of sucking is different. This action involves more of an up and down movement. Sucking involves more active use of the lips and elevation of the tongue than suckling. By 4 months, the true suck is established, with the tongue sealing towards the first one third of the mouth. (Bahr, 2010)

The main difference between suckling and sucking is that suckling is a primitive reflex and sucking is a more mature pattern.

Pacifiers encourage the immature, front-back action of suckling. It is recommended that pacifier use is limited to bedtime by nine months and discontinued by 18 months (Fernando & Potock, 2015).

Sippy cups also encourage a front to back motion of the tongue when drinking.  Cups can be introduced as early as 6 months and straws can be introduced around 10-12 months (Overland, 2013).  Make sure your child is using their lips and cheeks to suck from a straw and the straw is not sitting back on the tongue.

A continuous forward motion of the tongue puts pressure on the teeth and can change the bite. It can result in issues with speech. If a tongue is protruding forward during mealtimes, it can prevent food from reaching the back molars where it can be adequately chewed.

If your child is beyond a year of age and you suspect they are still primarily using a forward-backward movement when swallowing, a Speech-Language Pathologist can help.  A Speech-Language Pathologist can assist a family with eliminating habits such as pacifiers and help facilitate appropriate development of oral motor skills.



Bahr, D. (2011). Nobody Ever Told Me (or my Mother) That!: Everything from Bottles and Breathing to Healthy Speech Development. Cork: BookBaby.

Fernando, N., & Potock, M. (2015). Raising a healthy, happy eater: a parent’s handbook– a stage-by-stage guide to setting your child on the path to adventurous eating. New York, NY: The Experiment, LLC.

Overland, L. L., & Merkel-Walsh, R. (2013). A sensory motor approach to feeding: Lori L. Overland and Robyn Merkel-Walsh. Charleston: TalkTools.

Brooke Andrews Pediatric Speech Pathologist The Speech Dynamic

Brooke is the owner of The Speech Dynamic LLC , where she provides play based and family centered speech and feeding therapy. in the Greater Houston area, She is the co-creator of “Wiggle time,” an interdisciplinary curriculum for pediatric therapy.  She has presented at The North Carolina Exceptional Children’s Conference regarding embedding language into routines. She has also shared her expertise on a panel for The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Brooke has a passion for helping families understand the importance of play for speech & language development.

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