Would you be interested if I told you that you could help your child’s face and jaws to grow from birth? What if you had more control over preventing crooked teeth? Have you ever heard that kids who don’t need braces are just ‘lucky’? Have somehow been ‘blessed’ by straight teeth? What if I said that environmental factors help stimulate growth and that you could realistically implement these steps to create your own ‘luck’?
Now don’t get me wrong, dentofacial growth is incredibly complex and genetics have a strong influence. However, there is a difference between genetics and genetic potential. There are steps we can take to help influence healthy and positive growth. We do this with the rest of the body, so why not the mouth? It starts early with education and discussion. It happens in the first 3-5 years of life well before we see any adult teeth emerge. I want to talk about the environmental factors that we can realistically implement to avoid or at least minimise the need for extensive orthodontic intervention later in life. Once a child turns 6 years of age, the adult teeth start to erupt. At this point bite problems become a job for the orthodontist.
What’s Breastfeeding Got To Do With it?
Let’s start at day dot! Breastfeeding is the first and absolute best step you can take for your child’s facial development. Why, because your baby has to use their muscles. It’s a work out! Babies learn to coordinate the suck, swallow, breathe rhythm which stimulates bones and muscles to grow. Breast tissue is drawn deep into the mouth where it can mould to the shape your baby needs. Breastfeeding promotes nasal breathing too. Breastmilk has phenomenal nutritional powers, immune boosting cells and everything your baby needs to grow and thrive. When a baby can latch and feed well from day one, we have a perfect start. However, this is not the reality for many families. No-one prepares you for feeding difficulties and unfortunately many families have challenges. When I said education starts early, I meant EARLY! Breastfeeding is not an instinct that magically happens. It’s a skill that must be taught and learned. Unfortunately, there is so much guilt that comes when a new mum has difficulties and support is not there. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 29% of babies are exclusively breastfed for six months. This is a damaging statistic for our country and proves we need to do more to support and promote this topic. The Australian Breastfeeding Association has lots of free resources available. I recommended all new mums seek support from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). These lovely people dedicate so much of their time to learning all things about breastfeeding. They are a wealth of knowledge; passionate, caring people.
Over the last few years in particular I’ve learned a lot about breastfeeding from a wide range of professionals. I am amazed at the knowledge of so many bodyworkers. Bodyworkers include osteopaths, chiropractors and physiotherapists that treat postural and movement issues and they can complete further training in paediatrics. If a baby has positional issues in utero or experiences a traumatic birth, bodywork can assist in helping to breastfeed successfully. After all, we need good core stability and strength to feed at any age. They can also help guide you on postural factors that help with growth of the spine. Did you know that tummy time during infancy is crucial for developing the curve in the neck and back as well as developing breathing muscles?
Chew With Your Lips Closed
Did your grandma ever tell you, elbows off the table and chew with your lips closed? Maybe it was about good manners but actually there is more to it than that. Early feeding and mouth experiences all provide stimuli to grow. Spoon feeding with good body posture, foot support and at eye level can help children to chew and swallow properly. Allowing them to use their lips to remove food from the spoon rather than shovelling it in helps to develop good lip control. Allowing children to touch and play with their food while feeding themselves provides a great stimulus to learn about a variety of colours, flavours and textures.
Early mouth play activities, chewing and swallowing all stimulate muscle movement and growth. Mouth toys, hands and fingers in the mouth during the first few years are all normal and healthy. It’s helping your child to learn about their mouth. Learning to drink from an open cup at six months is worth the mess. Drinking from an open cup is distinctly different than a bottle or a sippy cup. Yes, I know, messy, but when we compare the action of the tongue, its vastly different. We want our children swallowing correctly because this is another force on the growing face and teeth. Pouch foods and sippy cups are some of the worst things you can use because they create negative sucking pressures rather than making the muscles work properly. If you’re worried about the mess, try a cup with a recessed lid. Dummies can be used safely for short periods but aim to eliminate them around 10months of age so the palate can grow. The tongue should be resting against the palate and the lips should be closed when not feeding or talking.
Chewing for growth is essential. Chewing builds bone and a strong jaw. The jaw joint is the growth centre of the face and requires stimulation from a young age. Obviously, we need to start with a soft diet when babies are learning but as they get older, hardening the texture of the diet becomes really important. I see lots of kiddos in my office who are very fussy eaters and only eat soft foods like pasta and chicken nuggets. Yes, picky eating can be behavioural but some issues may be functional. For example, low jaw, tongue strength, coordination, tongue ties and enlarged tonsils can all contribute. It’s interesting that as society’s diet became softer, dental crowding increased. A famous study by Weston Price in 1939, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is a fascinating read on this topic. Science has come a long way since then and we understand much more. I agree that he got a few things right. Sugar causes tooth decay and a soft diet as well as mouth breathing contributes to negative changes in facial growth.
Mouth Breathing Is a Problem
Mouth breathing is a topic that I am extremely passionate about. Everyone that comes into my office has an airway assessment because nasal obstruction is a serious issue. Did you know that 40-60% of children with an airway problem also have an orthodontic problem? Did you know that 40-80% of children who have an orthodontic problem also have an airway problem? Nasal obstruction in children is serious and contributes to poor sleep quality, bite problems, learning and concentration issues, eating issues and behaviour problems. Yet, it continues to be overlooked. It is my mission to create awareness about this problem. After all, its staring us in the face. Mouth breathing not only bypasses all the essential factors of the nose such as warming, filtering, humidifying and regulating the air but it also leads to a change in oral rest posture of the tongue and the lips. This is a big change if we are growing and the first 3-5 years of life is the biggest growth phase for the face and jaws. Lips closed and tongue lightly suctioned to the roof of the mouth is what we call ‘normal’ oral rest posture. The earlier this happens, the bigger impact it has on growth. Essentially the tongue is the palate expander and the lips are the braces. The balance of forces that happens with ‘normal’ oral rest posture is positive for facial growth and more importantly helps the upper airway to remain open during sleep. To give a little perspective on this statement, it is estimated that the tongue places about 500 grams of pressure forwards, upwards and outwards on the growing palate and the lips create about 300 grams of pressure inwards. If we consider that a single orthodontic bracket on a front tooth requires approximately 1 gram of pressure to move a tooth these intra-oral pressures are significant during growth. A perfect world looks like lips closed, tongue up and breathing though the nose.