Mouth breathing and its effect on childhood development
Mouth breathing is a very common habit, present in more than 50 percent of children. It is caused by airway obstruction or small airway size. Common risk factors include swollen adenoids and tonsils or a blocked, stuffy nose.
Breathing through an open mouth is detrimental to the development of the face, teeth and upper airways. Left untreated in childhood, the habit results in abnormal facial features and smaller airways in adulthood. This perpetuates poor breathing habits and leads to a lifetime of health issues.
When a child mouth-breathes, the brain receives insufficient oxygen. Long term, this has been proven to have a direct impact on cognitive ability, learning and behaviour. Furthermore, mouth breathing at night can result in sleep-disordered breathing with problems such as snoring and sleep apnoea. No child should ever snore.
In 1909, an article was published in a journal called The Dental Cosmos in which the author described how mouth breathing affects the development of the face and skull. Children who mouth-breathe, the author explained, are often misinterpreted as being inattentive in class due to their 'glazed' expressions. The fact is, there is significant scientific evidence that mouth breathing can lead to poorly developed airways, contributing to a lifelong habit of poor breathing patterns. There is also proof that mouth breathing causes learning difficulties. Human beings are not meant to breathe through their mouths, and children who mouth-breathe will struggle to reach their full potential.
How common is mouth breathing?
Even though it has many functions, from improving oxygen uptake in the blood to filtering and humidifying incoming air, the nose is often underused for the essential task of breathing. Babies are born breathing in and out through their noses, their little tummies moving up and down as they take each breath, but as early as a few months into life, many children switch to habitual mouth breathing. Mouth breathing is considered to be a pathological condition, yet it is present in more than 50 percent of children with a higher incidence in boys (around 60 percent) than girls (about 40 percent).
What causes mouth breathing?
Mouth breathing in children is always caused by some sort of obstruction in the airways or by an airway that is narrow for some reason. One 2018 review found that children with nasal obstruction are 5.55 times more likely to mouth-breathe. Obstruction is often the result of swollen adenoids and/or tonsils. When these soft tissues in the back of the throat are enlarged, the airway becomes much narrower. This is not just an uncomfortable childhood malady. Untreated swollen adenoids can lead to irreversible abnormalities in facial growth. Other things that contribute to mouth breathing include lower airway issues including asthma, thumb sucking, excessive use of pacifiers, a high narrow palate (children with a narrow palate are 2.99 times more likely to mouth-breathe), a small nose, tongue-tie (tissue holding the tongue down to the floor of the mouth), lip-tie, deviated nasal septum, bottle-feeding and even environment (an excessively warm or poorly ventilated home).
Conventional pacifiers have been linked to abnormal dental growth, and one study found that for each year of pacifier use, the probability of mouth breathing increases by 25 percent. The man-made teats intrinsic to bottle-feeding can produce similar problems. Breastfeeding not only provides your baby with proper nutrition, it also helps the face and jaw muscles develop in a way that bottle-feeding just can't replicate.
Tongue and lip ties can cause the baby difficulty suckling and prevent correct positioning of the tongue. If the mouth is hanging open, the tongue will not rest naturally against the roof of the mouth. Try it for yourself. Place three-quarters of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, then open your mouth and try to breathe. It's not easy. Along with nasal breathing, the position of the tongue is important as it moulds the top jaw into a wide U shape, ensuring a healthy, attractively proportioned face with enough room in both jaws for all of the adult teeth. I once heard a speaker at a sleep conference describe how midwives in sixteenth century France had an extra-long finger nail to release tongue ties of babies soon after birth. Bizarre as it may sound, this may have been the difference between life and death for those children.
Another common cause of mouth breathing is a condition called allergic rhinitis, an inflammatory disorder that affects about 40 percent of children. Rhinitis creates symptoms including nasal discharge, sneezing, blocked nose, palatal itching, mood swings and tiredness, most of which are also common to children who mouth-breathe, and can be relieved by learning to breathe through the nose.
The Buteyko Technique is a gentle breathing re-education program which is suitable for everyone. Children's exercises involved simple and fun games built into your routine to make them achievable.
The advantage of working holistically on mouth breathing resolves the underlying reason for mouth breathing as well as re-training the breath, resulting in less occurrence of returning to mouth breathing habits.
If you would like to know more about Buteyko breathing contact us at Elemental Health to discuss your health and goals. (02) 8084 0081.
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