Sleep, glorious sleep! Especially when our kids are small, we can be painfully deprived of essential rest. When our sleep is impaired, so is our health, and the same goes for our kids. Researchers estimate that 85% of people with sleep apnea, which severely impacts their rest, remain undiagnosed, and many more have sleep-disordered breathing. In fact, 25% of children diagnosed with ADHD have sleep-disordered breathing and may actually be suffering from sleep deprivation.
Simply put, healthy breathing is essential to a good night’s sleep, which in turn is key to the rest of health. The growth of children’s faces impacts the way they breathe, and how they breathe in turn affects their facial growth! Ideally, children should breathe through their noses while sleeping. First, the nose moistens, warms, and filters the air. Second, when children breathe through their mouths, their tongues are not properly positioned in the palate, which may limit the growth and expansion of their top jaw. A narrow upper jaw can lead to dental crowding and further constriction of the airway.
For children with constricted airways and narrow jaws, orthodontic treatment is one of the best ways to establish the proper width and obtain the space needed for the tongue to function normally. Airway-centered orthodontic treatment can significantly improve breathing and promote a good night’s sleep. Early treatment (when it’s warranted) is a great way to help establish proper breathing and avoid impacted teeth and dental extractions down the road.
However, there are simple things you can do to avoid the airway becoming constricted in the first place! First, If you notice that your child is breathing through the mouth while sleeping, gently use your fingers to lightly pull the lips together as a reminder, to establish a habit of breathing through the mouth. If it seems like it’s hard for your child to breathe through the nose, an allergist, ENT, or naturopath may be able to clear ongoing congestion.
Second, as children switch from nursing to eating solid foods, their swallow changes. However, if children are not chewing enough, this shift may not take place, preventing the tongue from acting as a supportive scaffold for healthy jaw and palate growth. Giving children actual solid foods (those that require chewing) or even using “chew sticks” or sugar-free gum can help strengthen the oral musculature and support bone growth.
In conclusion, by helping children establish good breathing habits and using their oral muscles properly from the get-go, you have a good chance to improve sleep and avoid the need for early orthodontic treatment. Get them chewing, and may you sleep well!
—Dr. Claire Ferrari has been an orthodontist for over 25 years and is a parent of three Step One alumni. She treats adults and children in Kensington and is passionate about how orthodontic treatment can aid overall health.