If your toddler has started wagging their tongue around and holding it, you’re not alone.
This curious habit of playing with their tongues peaks between ages 2-3 years old, though it may begin as early as 1 year old.
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While it may look funny or unhygienic, this common phase is a perfectly natural developmental behavior and is mostly harmless.
In this post, I’ll go over the reasons why toddlers are so fascinated with holding their tongues.
Plus, I’ll also give you some tips to handle excessive tongue play or potential hygiene issues.
Why Is My Toddler Grabbing Tongue?
Here are some of the common reasons why your toddler is grabbing their tongue:
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#1 Exploring Their Bodies
Toddlers are like little scientists discovering what their bodies can do.
They learn by touching, feeling, tasting – exploring their world through their senses.
Grabbing and holding their tongue is one way curious toddlers explore and experiment.
And the tongue in particular is a fun tool to discover, as it’s slippery and wiggly, unlike their hands and feet.
When toddlers grab their tongues, they are figuring out how their mouths work. They are learning that the tongue feels soft and squishy, and it moves in tricky ways.
#2 Teething Relief
Another reason toddlers hold their tongues is for teething relief.
Between the ages of 1-3 years old, children are getting new teeth and will deal with sore, swollen gums. Pressing or holding their tongues may provide counter pressure that feels good on tender gums.
The cold, wet tongue can soothe aching gums. It’s like a natural teething toy built right into their mouths!
Teething biscuits and rings help too, but tongues are always there to nibble on.
#3 Imitating Others
Toddlers are little copycats!
They learn by watching and imitating everything parents and siblings do.
When they see someone briefly stick out a tongue – to eat, brush teeth, or just be silly – toddlers try to imitate.
Seeing others interact with their tongues, even briefly to lick lips or make faces, validates this body part as something they can play with too.
Toddlers imitate behaviors they see as a way of participating and bonding.
#4 Seeking Attention
Toddlers have not yet learned to express themselves with words. So they do things like grabbing their tongues to get attention.
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It signals “look at me!” without saying it.
The behavior may function as a pre-verbal way to convey interest, excitement, silliness, distress, or other feelings they want to share.
This can become a self-soothing habit to get a parent’s reassuring response.
#5 Social Play
Around ages 2-3 years old, toddlers become more socially engaged and learn to interact with siblings and parents in back-and-forth play.
They begin participating in silly antics like making faces or noises as a way to get laughs and initiate games with others.
Sticking their tongues out crosses into the social development stage where toddlers act goofy and push boundaries through play.
It’s a way for them to connect with loved ones in new ways as they test out social responses.
#6 Sensory Play
For some babies, the sensation of grabbing their wet and wiggly tongues may be pleasing in a sensory way. The feeling stimulates their tactile awareness.
Oral exploration allows them to experience different textures and pressures.
And the tongue is always there – no toys required! It’s always moist and slippery.
So when toddlers stick out and hold their slippery tongues, they might be entertaining themselves
#7 Boredom Buster
Finally, in moments of boredom, playing with their tongues gives toddlers something to do.
Babies and young toddlers spend much of their day engaged in play, sensory exploration, or social interaction.
But as their attention spans grow, they can get restless when less mentally stimulated.
Grabbing their tongues during diaper changes, car rides, or quiet moments occupies their curiosity and hands.
Why Is My Toddler Grabbing Tongue And Crying?
The most common reason why toddlers grab their tongue and cry is because they are teething.
Teething can be a pretty painful process for toddlers, as their baby teeth start to emerge through the gums.
Other than that, eating hot or spicy foods, or coming into contact with allergenic substances, may cause irritation and make them cry and grab their tongue.
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They might also grab their tongue out of curiosity, and if they experience discomfort, they may cry.
Tips To Reduce Tongue Grabbing
Here are some tips for parents to handle excessive tongue grabbing or hygiene issues:
Observe When Toddler Hold Tongue
Pay attention to when your baby tends to stick out their tongue. Is it during moments of concentration, excitement, or boredom?
- If it’s during boredom, provide engaging activities.
- If it’s for sensory input, offer oral toys.
- If it’s for attention, try praising other behaviors more.
When you notice your toddler grabbing tongue, gently and calmly remind them to keep it in their mouth.
Use positive reinforcement.
Praise and encourage your toddler when they keep their tongue in their mouth.
Avoid scolding or making a big deal out of it, as this may stress them or make the behavior worse.
Children often mimic the behavior of adults and older children. Make sure you are modeling the behavior you want to see.
Keep your own tongue in your mouth, and your toddler may follow suit.
Do activities that engage your toddler’s mouth and tongue, such as blowing bubbles, playing with musical instruments, or singing songs with exaggerated mouth movements.
This can help them become more aware of their tongue and how to control it.
Remember that this is a common phase for toddlers, and it may take some time for them to outgrow it.
Never punish your child for sticking out their tongue.
Keep Their Hands Clean
Model proper hygiene like regular hand washing and teeth brushing.
And keep an eye on the cleanliness of your toddler’s hands to reduce germs entering when they grab their tongue. Use hand sanitizer or wet wipes regularly.
Tongue grabbing tends to be a passing phase that peaks between ages 2-3. This habit is fulfilling a developmental need to explore their bodies and environment.
With time, words and play will replace their tongue investigations.
While it is mostly harmless, it can cause issues if they do it all the time.