Babies stick out their tongues for many reasons, and sometimes, for no apparent reason at all. A baby who sticks out their tongue may be hungry, full, or not like a certain food.
Babies may also stick out their tongue to imitate or get a response from their parent or caregiver. Knowing a baby’s habits at a particular age can help determine why they stick out their tongue.
This article outlines the reasons why babies may stick out their tongues. It also explains when sticking out the tongue may indicate a cause for concern.
A baby’s habits, awareness, and ability to copy adult behaviors change with age. Babies below 6 months may stick out their tongue instinctively, while babies above this age may do it intentionally.
Babies under 6 months
For babies under 6 months of age, the most common reasons for sticking out the tongue include natural reflexes, hunger, and genetic differences.
Tongue thrust reflex
The tongue thrust reflex is when a baby automatically extends its tongue in response to something touching the lips. This reflex makes it easier for young babies to eat when an adult offers milk from the breast or bottle.
The tongue thrust reflex usually lasts up until the baby is 4 to 6 months old. A parent or caregiver should not offer a baby solid foods until this reflex has disappeared. However, most babies will not need solid foods until they are 6 months old.
Young babies often stick out their tongues when they are hungry. Parents and caregivers may also notice the baby rooting for food. The baby may turn its head in one direction, open its mouth, and then do the same while facing the other direction.
Congenital conditions are conditions that are present from birth. Certain congenital conditions may cause babies to have larger tongues than typical. This may cause the tongue to stick out of the mouth.
This is different from when a baby sticks the tongue out on purpose. Babies with conditions such as Down syndrome and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome may have a tongue that protrudes from the mouth most of the time, along with other signs and symptoms.
Genetic differences are the least likely reason for babies to stick out their tongues. In most cases, thrusting the tongue out is not a sign that the child has any genetic differences.
Babies over 6 months
At around 6 months old, babies also develop some communication skills, meaning they may intentionally stick out their tongues.
A baby may stick out its tongue to imitate an older child or adult, get a reaction from a parent or caregiver, or signal hunger.
Most babies begin imitating simple adult behaviors when they are around 8 months of age. However, premature babies and those with developmental delays may begin imitating slightly later.
A baby may stick out its tongue to imitate an older child or adult or behaviors, such as talking or kissing.
Getting a reaction
Babies crave attention and are continually learning about relationships with the people they encounter. A baby may stick out its tongue to test the reaction it gets from a particular person.
If an adult laughs in response to the baby sticking out its tongue, the baby might do it more often. However, some babies might continue to stick out their tongues even if an adult is disapproving because they are curious about adult behavior.
Some babies learn that sticking out their tongue gets them food. They may continue to do this even when they can signal hunger in other ways.
There are several reasons a baby may stick their tongue after feeding. To determine the cause, a parent or caregiver may need to consider other aspects of the baby’s body language.
Below are some reasons a baby may stick its tongue out after feeding.
Once full, a baby may turn its head away from food or refuse to accept more to eat. Some babies try to push food out of their mouths by sticking out the tongue.
There are times when a baby might still be hungry even though they have just eaten. This may happen during breastfeeding if the person nursing is not producing enough milk, or if the baby did not get enough to eat.
Babies of different ages may display a range of signs that they are hungry. Some examples include:
Babies below 6 months of age:
- opening their mouth
- smacking their lips
- balling up their fists
Babies over 6 months of age:
- reaching for food
- getting excited about the sight of food
- using signs or hand motions to indicate hunger
Signaling dislike of food
Some babies stick out their tongues when they dislike a new food. It is normal for babies who are trying solids to reject new foods.
A parent or caregiver should never force a baby to eat. Instead, people should continue introducing a wide range of healthful foods. Many babies have to try a food multiple times before they like it.
A baby sticking out his or her tongue does not typically indicate that something is wrong.
However, some neurologically different children may stick out their tongues in situations where other babies would not.
A person should consider taking the baby to see a pediatrician if they frequently stick out their tongue for no apparent reason, and display other developmental differences.
Any change in a baby’s behavior may also warn of an issue. For example, a baby who continuously shows signs of hunger immediately after nursing may not be getting enough breastmilk or formula. Alternatively, the baby may be having trouble absorbing nutrition from their food.
Behavioral changes that occur following a blow to the head or other trauma may signal an emergency. A baby who experiences trauma of any kind should receive immediate medical attention.
During the first year of a baby’s life, parents or caregivers will attend regular appointments with a pediatrician. A person can use these appointments to discuss behavior changes and ask about signs of normal infant development.
Sometimes, a parent or caregiver may need to seek medical advice outside of a scheduled appointment. Always call a doctor if a baby displays any of the following:
- constant signs of hunger, especially if they are breastfeeding and parents or caregivers do not know how much they are eating
- sticking the tongue out in addition to trouble swallowing or feeding
- behavior changes that do not have any clear cause
- signs of physical discomfort
A person should go to the emergency room if a baby’s behavior changes significantly during or following an injury, fever, or illness.
Many people may find parenting stressful, especially as babies cannot clearly communicate what they are feeling.
Babies stick out their tongues for many reasons, such as to signal hunger, fullness, or dislike of a certain food. Babies over 6 months of age may stick out their tongue intentionally as a means of imitating or communicating with their parent or caregiver. However, often there is no clear cause.
It is normal for babies to stick their tongues on. It is rarely a sign of an underlying medical condition that requires attention. Parents and caregivers who are worried about their baby’s behavior or development should contact a pediatrician for advice.