Could mouth breathing contribute to developmental delays?
The short answer? Yes, it is possible.
As you are reading this, pause, now observe where your tongue and lips are at rest. Is your mouth open or closed? Does your tongue rest between your teeth? Is it on the floor or the roof of the mouth? Are your teeth touching, or are they apart? A healthy mouth posture at rest is as follows: lips closed, teeth slightly apart, tongue resting (with slight suction) at the roof of the mouth.
Mouth breathing is considered an airway function disorder that can lead to myofunctional disorders. So, mouth breathing can have an impact on speech articulation, executive functioning skills (memory, attention, problem-solving), self-regulation, chewing, swallowing, overall learning, as well as behavior. This can be especially true in a developing child.
Why is nasal breathing so important?
A study was conducted assessing mouth breathing, snoring, and apnea episodes in over 11,000 children ages 6 months to 7 years. The study concluded that toddlers ages 18-30 months with previous listed symptoms, were 40% to 60% more likely to show signs of hyperactivity and behavior problems by the ages of 4 and 7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3313633/. This illustrates the importance of catching and treating an open mouth breathing habit as soon as possible to limit potential side effects.
Your nasal passages are designed to humidify, warm, and filter the air you breathe. Recently researchers have discovered that the nasal sinuses actually produce a gas (nitric oxide) that helps deliver more oxygen to the body and helps regulate blood pressure. Proper mouth posture at rest is crucial for jaw and palate development, straight teeth, and helps to keep the airway open.
In fact, newborn babies almost exclusively breathe through their nose unless they are crying. It’s not until 3-4 months of age before a newborn develops the reflex to open the mouth to breathe if needed. As a pediatric SLP, I often hear parents of toddlers report difficultly with chewing and drinking, picky eating, tongue thrust, frequently mouthing toys and other objects past the age of two, excess drooling, and interdentalized speech sounds /s, z, t, d, n, l/.
What causes mouth breathing and how can we treat it?
Often children begin mouth breathing due to blocked nasal passages. This can occur when individuals have chronic sinus infections, colds, allergies, and asthma. Talk with your doctor to see what your options are.
Enlarged tonsils and adenoids may also contribute to open mouth breathing. These can be identified by an Ear Nose and Throat specialist (ENT).
Oral habits like thumb sucking and pacifier use can weaken lip muscles, encourage a low tongue resting posture, and can create a gap in the teeth, thus making a lip seal more difficult. Tackling these habits can be difficult and tedious but so important for your child’s facial growth and development.
Other structural abnormalities like cleft palate, macroglossia (big tongue) often seen in children with Down Syndrome, deviated septum, as well as tongue and lip ties. Tongue and lip ties can be diagnosed from a variety of professionals. Ask your dentist, ENT, speech therapist, or a lactation consultant if they have had training to identify these.
If mouth breathing continues after medical intervention and habit elimination, consider consulting with a professional who has a myofunctional background.
Written by Michael Tatro, Speech Language Pathologist, Sedgwick Infant/Toddler Services Program