Babies are so amazing. Case in point: In just a short time after birth, a breast-feeding baby has learned not only to compress her mother’s nipple between her tongue and roof of mouth, but also to give a backward pull of the tongue—otherwise known as suckling. Not bad for someone who’s only been breathing air for a few hours.
Studies are mixed on whether breast-feeding can give your baby a true advantage (when compared to bottle drinkers) in developing speech and language skills, but breast-feeding does naturally strengthen the tongue, lips, and jaw in a way that promotes speech and language readiness.
A newborn baby suckles, but as a baby grows she must develop stronger and more coordinated muscles to have longer and more efficient feeds. As the tongue works to pull back for more milk, it’s also spreading out, getting stronger, and anchoring itself at the back of the mouth. This anchor will eventually be essential for speech, as it allows the tongue to support its own weight and move independently from the lips and jaw. Sounds like /m/, /b/, and /p/ all come from the lips. But more complex sounds like /n/, /k/, and /ng/ all require independent movement—or dissociation—by the tongue. At the same time, when baby forces mama’s nipple up to the roof of his mouth with his tongue, he’s also helping the soft cartilage up there form correctly before it hardens into bone.
Not all speech delays are caused by poor oral motor development.
How does this compare to bottle feeding? Often, typical nipples flow too easily, so baby does not have to put a lot of effort into feeding. In fact, if the milk flows too quickly, baby actually has to thrust her tongue forward to stop the flow of milk. This is the opposite of what happens during breast-feeding. You can encourage proper sucking by using a straight nipple that does not flow too quickly (listen for gulping or gasping, that’s a clue that the hole is too big) to help your bottle-feeding baby develop strength in her tongue, jaw and lips.
Later, when your toddler has weaned from the breast or bottle, transition to an open cup rather than a sippy. Open cups require lip closure on the rim, which is important for both speech and feeding. Sippy cups force the tongue forward, which does not promote good muscle development. A compromise for parents worried about spills is using a straw cup, which will promote good muscle strength and development. To teach your toddler to suck from a straw, try using a juice box that allows you to squeeze the juice up to the top of the straw. With a little practice, your toddler will catch on quickly.