An Infant’s Mouth: How Babies Experience the World

A baby's first year is full of wonderful changes. Watching as they develop new skills and discover the world around them is one of the great joys of parenting.

If you've ever watched an infant for any length of time, you may have noticed they are constantly bringing their hands to their mouths. Sucking on fingers--yours or theirs--is very common.

And while it may seem strange at first, it is nature's way of helping infants experience the world around them. This stage of development also helps prepare them for eating different foods. Learning about this stage can help parents understand why dental care is important, even for infants.

Oral development in babies

While infants have a lot of growing and learning to do, they are born with a few ready-to-use skills.

For example, when something touches a baby's face or hands, she will turn toward it and open her mouth. This is called the "rooting reflex."

When she gets something into her mouth, her first instinct will be to suck or nurse. When she realizes the item is not mom's breast or a bottle, she will then use her mouth to explore the item. By "mouthing" each new thing, she learns about different sensations such as hard or soft, warm or cold.

How an infant uses her mouth

An infant's mouth is very sensitive. For the first several months, mouthing is the ways infants learn about their surroundings. Babies use their mouths literally to "take in" new experiences. Bringing things to their mouths allows them to both smell and taste the item and is how they learn to investigate new things.

Around six months of age, a baby's mouth muscles are more developed and she become more skilled at exploring the things she handles. Her ability to use her hands and grab at things also improves. If it seems she is putting anything she can get her hands on into her mouth, it's because she is!

Around this time, teething will begin. As her teeth struggle to push through her gums, your baby will likely have some discomfort and need teething relief. She may try to put everything in her mouth in an attempt to help ease the pain.

When teething reaches its peak, you may find your child becomes fussy or cranky. It can be frustrating for parents, but there are many things you can do to help make this phase easier. See the article Teething Remedies: What Works and What Doesn't for suggestions.

Now that you understand more about your baby's dental development, you can see why she wants to put everything in her mouth. As long as the items are safe and clean, it's alright to let her explore. It's just her way of taking in this whole new world.

Good dental care will remain important throughout your child's life. For some reminders on the importance of oral health see Tips for Oral Hygiene.

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