Sticking the tongue out can have many meanings. Children may use it as a sign of silliness, while people might do it to express disgust. A person may also stick their tongue out if they need to concentrate.
A baby who sticks their tongue out could be learning about their body, or it may indicate an underlying issue.
Some conditions have symptoms that can cause someone to stick their tongue out. These signs tend to accompany other symptoms, depending on the underlying issue.
Below, we discuss possible causes of sticking the tongue out.
The meaning of sticking the tongue out may change depending on the culture and situation.
Even so, it is a rude gesture within many customs. However, the context, situation, and intent of this behavior may alter its meaning. Sticking a tongue out could indicate that a person is:
- being rude
- flirtatious or sexual
Again, the intent and context determine the meaning. For example, a person who sticks their tongue out during a photo is probably not being rude. It may be a sign of playfulness or an attempt to take a silly picture.
Some people may stick their tongue out compulsively, without any thought. It is common to see this behavior in someone concentrating on another task or lost in thought.
One theory behind this is that it could stem from the evolution of human communication, as it transitioned from hand gestures to voice.
Babies can further demonstrate this link between human gestures and speech. Infants go through a stage of gesturing before they can form words, so language and gestures evolve together.
The study goes on to describe the role of the tongue in many unconscious processes involving the mouth. Examples include forming words, swallowing, and keeping out of the way of the teeth.
Nerve endings and tastebuds cover the tongue, and both send a steady stream of information to the brain.
The tongue plays a key role in the thinking and language centers in the brain. It may move to partially form words that a person thinks, not just the words they will say.
When a person sticks out their tongue as they concentrate, they temporarily stop communication between the tongue and brain. This frees up brainpower for the task at hand.
When complex tasks involve the hands, this triggers the connection in the brain, which makes the person stick out their tongue involuntarily.
In any case, a person who sticks out their tongue during a task is not harmful, nor is it a sign of an underlying issue.
Babies stick their tongue out for several reasons, though these can be difficult to interpret.
Play and imitation
As a baby starts discovering their body, they may make several different gestures.
It is common for infants to make many different motions with their mouths. They may open and close the mouth repeatedly, stick the tongue out, “blow raspberries,” or make other vocalizations.
For some babies, sticking the tongue out may become a habit, as it may simply feel fun or interesting for them.
A baby may also copy what their parents, caregivers, or others do around them. A study in Developmental Science found that this form of imitation may occur in infants as young as 1 week old.
These behaviors are all normal and part of the process of learning about the body.
When a young child opens their mouth, sticks their tongue out, or smacks or licks their lips, it could be a sign of hunger. They may also turn their head toward their mother’s breast or a bottle, and clench their hands or put them in their mouth.
A child that sticks a tongue out or chews on it may be teething. Other behaviors that indicate this include chewing on objects or their hands or being generally fussy or cranky.
While babies generally breathe through their nose, one or more issues may make this more difficult. Congestion, blocked nasal passages, large tonsils, and other issues can all cause infants to breathe through their mouth instead of their nose. If this happens, they may stick out their tongue more than usual.
If a baby seems to have trouble breathing or makes unusual breathing sounds, contact a doctor. In some cases that require treatment, doctors can surgically remove structures, such as tonsils, that might cause mouth breathing.
Macroglossia is the medical term for a large tongue. A person with this condition may stick their tongue out more than normal. If the tongue does not fit in the mouth, it may even stick out most of the time.
Someone who suspects that their child has macroglossia should contact their doctor.
Micrognathia is the medical term for a smaller-than-average jaw. It may occur due to genetics and may cause the tongue to stick out if it does not fit in the mouth.
Micrognathia may develop in some conditions, such as Pierre Robin Sequence or cleft palate. Anyone who notices their child sticking their tongue out more than usual should contact a doctor.
Sticking the tongue out does not always indicate an underlying condition. Some people may do this or make other mouth movements unconsciously during tasks. Others may do it as an act of playfulness.
Some conditions may cause a child to stick their tongue out. Symptoms typically appear along with other signs, which can help doctors make a diagnosis.