It's not like you hate seeing it — this new little baby you birthed is an amazing package with all kinds of tricks and surprises — but eventually you might start wondering why your baby is sticking their tongue out all the time. There it is when she's hungry, and again when she's finished eating. Sometimes she just rests it between her lips like it's a totally normal thing to do. Luckily, it is a normal thing for her to do, and eventually she'll tuck it into her mouth where it belongs after she's reached a few milestones. But what's happening right now?
It turns out, tongue thrusting is a primitive reflex in newborns that is associated with feeding. You might find that when you touch your baby's lips, out comes her tongue in anticipation of sucking milk or formula. In response to hunger or in anticipation of food, some babies stick their tongue out to signal it's time to eat. In fact, the presence of this reflex reflects an unreadiness for solid food and prevents your baby from choking substances her body is not ready to handle, according to Loving Care.
"It’s their own body saying, 'I’m not ready for this, I still need my breast milk or formula.' With time it should go away and baby will happily take food from a spoon," says Dr. Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Orlando's Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, in an interview with Romper.
Infants often signal whether they've had enough to eat or are still hungry with their tongue. So when your infant sticks out her tongue and turns away form your breast or her bottle, she's clearly had plenty to eat and is refusing more.
Another possibility is that your baby is imitating you, or doing her best approximation of the facial expressions you present to her. I'm pretty sure all new parents spend some time sticking their own tongues out at their babies to see if they mirror them (Surprise! They absolutely do), and several studies over the last four decades indicate that your infant is actually copying you. In studies published in the 1970s in Science, infants as young as 2 and 3 weeks old mimicked researchers when they protruded their tongue. As your baby grows older, BabySparks noted that their attempts at mimicry will be very recognizable, but even at a few days or weeks old, their brain is already making connections that are helped along by imitation.
"It’s surprising, but it’s their first way of playing with their parents," says Dr. Moorjani. "It’s the baby’s first way to imitate. It’s so formative in a baby’s brain and they have an expected reaction. It’s a game of prediction and reliability."
As your baby's oral strength grows and the reflex disappears to make way for spoon-feeding, there are a few instances when parents need to be concerned. It's still normal for older babies to stick out their tongues in play, but if their tongue never seems to actually find its way inside their mouth you might have a larger problem on your hands. A number of conditions, including Down Syndrome and spinal muscular atrophy, include tongue thrusting in their list of symptoms, according to the parenting resource Noah's Dad. Reasons dependent on the nature of the conditions range from lack of muscle tone, a tongue that is too large, a mouth that is too small or masses that thrust the tongue out. "Sometimes babies may have large tongues or small mouths and it’s perfectly healthy," Dr. Moorjani says. "There may be some congenital syndromes if your baby has a bunch of other abnormalities."
Even if there isn't a larger issue at play, prolonged tongue thrusting can have other implications. Is your baby suddenly breathing through her mouth also? Perhaps she's congested or is suffering from seasonal allergies. Does she use a pacifier or suck her thumb? Get rid of them and see if her tongue goes back into her mouth.
Tongue protrusion in older babies can delay what is known as a "mature swallow," and it needs to be addressed if it's inhibiting the child from moving to solid foods or learning to speak. Speech or physical therapy might be in order once your pediatrician is able to rule out any serious conditions in a baby older than 6 months.
However, if you have a younger infant and you get a thrill out of how cute that little tongue is, continue to enjoy it, because it won't last for long.