Breathing. It seems simple enough.
The reality is, it’s a bit more complicated.
Did you know there’s a healthy way to breathe and an unhealthy way? There’s a good chance that you haven’t even given “the way you breathe” much thought because, after all, you’re still alive, so you’re clearly breathing!
Mouth breathing, however, can lead to a myriad of health problems, sleep deprivation and permanently change the shape of your face.
From Day 1
Babies are born breathing in and out from their noses (once the initial nasal mucous from birth is gone). It makes sense, right? They need to be able to breathe while they feed.
Newborns, for the first 3 to 4 months, can’t breathe through their open mouths unless they are crying. It explains why a little nasal congestion is so miserable for a baby and, if they’re struggling to breathe, they may need some help clearing it as they are unable to do so on their own.
Without the presence of a cold, virus or blocked nasal passages, your baby should be breathing through their nose, and so should you.
It may seem harmless because it’s easy to think that it doesn’t matter how you breathe but as long as you’re breathing, you’re still alive. The consequences of breathing through your mouth over the long term are significant.
How Mouth Breathing Begins
Mouth breathing can become a new habit at any time. It could just take a cold or a virus to cause you to sleep with your mouth open. I’m just getting over a sinus infection after 3 weeks and woke up every morning feeling terrible because of the mouth breathing. It’s not a great feeling.
In babies and young children, mouth breathing can start for a variety of reasons:
- Reflux or silent reflux – babies with reflux are often congested and sound like they are congested. This is due to milk going into the nasal passages as it comes up, causing inflammation.
- Colic – Babies mouth-breathe when they cry.
- The room is too warm
- Newborns can take a few days to clear the mucous from their nasal passageways from birth
- Prolonged use of dummy/pacifier or thumb-sucking – eventually can change the natural resting location of the tongue in the mouth, which should be against the palate.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
Prolonged mouth breathing can lead to a variety of medical, physical, dental, emotional and behavioural challenges.
Read below for the possible effects of mouth breathing for both babies and adults:
- Underdeveloped arch in the mouth, which can lead to teeth-crowding and a smaller jaw.
- “Gummy” smile
- A long and narrow face
- Forward head posture
- Poor growth
- Enlarged tonsils and adenoids
- Throat and ear infections
- Gingivitis (gum disease)
- Dental cavities
- Bad breath due to the increased bacteria in a dry mouth
- Increased rates of viral and bacterial infections
- Symptoms and behaviours similar to behaviours associated with ADHD or ODD
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Speech difficulties
- Chronic fatigue
- Waking up tired
- Lower levels oxygen concentration in the bloodstream, which can lead to high blood pressure & heart problems
Wow! That’s a lot and a little overwhelming!
Meet Connor Deegan
This YouTube video resonated with me immensely when I first saw it a few years ago. Connor was a teenager who had struggled immensely with his behaviour at home and at school. He was from a loving family and his school got to a just before they agreed to move him to a special needs class because his behaviour was so disruptive, his parents took him to every medical professional they could think of.
- A sleep study showed obstructive breathing, snoring arousals and he was grinding his teeth.
- Allergy testing showed that he was allergic to pets and several types of trees
- Since he was mouth-breathing 24 hours a day, it had a massive impact on the development of his mouth and airway as well as his own development.
- His tonsils and adenoids were enlarged, causing his airway to become obstructed.
After having the complete diagnosis, the following happened:
- Started allergy medication to stop the nasal congestion
- Tonsils and adenoids were removed
- Dental surgery to his mouth and tongue
After everything was addressed, Connor was able to breathe properly through his nose and the quality of his sleep improved drastically.
The vastly improved sleep made a significant improvement in his behaviour and his grades at school. I’ll post the link to the video below. I found it incredibly moving and inspiring to any parent of a child who is struggling. There are frequently answers when we know the cause.
So, what can you do?
Observe! Start by being aware of the importance of breathing through the nose for yourself and those around you. Your heightened sense of awareness is an important first step and your observations while awake or sleeping will help.
If the cause is temporary nasal congestion due to illness, it will likely pass quickly and your little one will be back to nasal breathing very soon. If it continues, however, it may warrant further investigation.
Babies who mouth breathe typically need to unlatch from the breast or bottle while feeding in order to breathe. They may also feed more restlessly, as it’s uncomfortable for them. The restless feeding can lead to swallowing more air, causing more wind or gas, as well as symptoms of reflux.
If you know your baby can breathe okay through her nose, gently close her mouth if you notice her mouth open while she’s sleeping.
Finding the source of the problem and treating it is an essential first step. With chronic congestion, consider allergies, reflux, a deviated septum, or an uncorrected tongue tie.
Visit your GP to discuss and if you need further support, request a referral to a paediatrician (for children) or a specialist, preferably one with a specialty in breathing and sleep.
Another trusted expert is your family dentist! “Dentists look for the signs of mouth breathing at every check-up,” says Dr. Lizet Horn, principal dentist at Worthing Road Dental Practice in Horsham, West Sussex. “We will advise patients and their parents of any concerns and may suggest stopping the use of a bottle or dummy if we can see a problem developing. We certainly encourage parents and any adults who are concerned about mouth breathing to discuss their concerns with their dentist as mouth breathing can have a significant impact on their oral and physical health.”
With adults, look for having the mouth slightly open while awake or sleeping, snoring or sleep apnea, asthma symptoms getting worse, TMJ (jaw) problems, bad breath, waking up feeling irritated or not feeling well-rested, speech challenges or a lisp – particularly with “s” sounds, hoarse sounding voice due to dry mouth.
If you’re experiencing any or some of these symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor or dentist. If snoring is the symptom, try and take a video of the snoring, which may be very helpful in any diagnosis. Remember, snoring isn’t healthy.
Here are a few links you may find helpful!
Finding Connor Deegan – YouTube – The American Academy of Physiological Medicine and Dentistry
Mouth breathing: Symptoms, complications, and treatment – MedicalNewsToday.com
6 Reasons Why Newborns Have Stuffy Noses – Dr. Howard J. Bennett – paediatrician – HuffingtonPost.com
Mouth breathing: Adverse effects on facial growth, health, academics, and behavior – Yosh Jefferson, DMD, MAGD – featured in Academy of General Dentistry
Newborn Sleeps with Mouth Open – Should You Be Worried? – Stacy Belk – Momwoot.com
Mouth breathing negatively affect children’s smile, teeth, face and airways (interesting images) – Anders Olsson – ConsciousBreathing.com
Join our #SleepTips for #SleepyParents group for excellent support, sleep tips and advice on how to make sleep a priority for your family! It’s a good place to navigate through all of the (unsolicited and conflicting) advice you’re probably receiving.
Mary Foster is a sleep specialist, an entrepreneur and mum of three little ones (at one time three under three). Mary’s a proud Canadian, living in Hampshire, England and is passionate about healthy sleep with a strong focus on emotional wellness. She’s the founder of Sleepy Lambs Sleep Consulting and loves supporting parents and helping newborns, babies, toddlers and young children learn to sleep better with a strong focus on emotional health and wellness. Watch out for the new Sleepy Lambs Sleep Academy, launching soon! Click here to message her.