Is my child a mouth breather?
5 minute read
Breathing through the mouth rather than the nose can lead to a number of problems if it’s not corrected, from poor oral health to speech problems, sleep disorders and facial appearance.
If your child is a mouth breather, a kids dentist may be able to recommend appropriate treatments to lower the risks of associated problems developing, or they may refer you to a specialist.
Read this guide to find out why mouth breathing can be harmful, what can cause it and what the treatment options are.
What are the signs of mouth breathing?
Normal breathing outside of energetic physical activity should be through the nose. If a child’s mouth rests in an open position, this doesn’t always indicate mouth breathing. Sleeping with their mouth open is a good indication of mouth breathing, so if you think you’re child may be a mouth breather, you should get a professional diagnosis by a doctor or dentist.
Children who breathe through their mouths often show signs of related problems, especially if this is disturbing their sleep. They may:
- snore loudly or grind their teeth during sleep
- feel tired during the day
- have problems with behaviour or concentration in school
- wet the bed after 6 years of age
If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, or anything else that concerns you, make an appointment to see a dentist or other health professional to schedule an assessment and discuss possible treatments.
Why is mouth breathing a problem?
Breathing through the nose is important for health. Air that passes through the nasal passages is filtered to remove some toxins. It enters the lungs at the optimal pressure to extract oxygen and release nitric oxide, which helps with circulation.
If you breathe through your mouth, fewer toxins are being filtered and circulation can be impaired, which reduces the transfer of oxygen around the body. These and other consequences can impact on a child’s health and wellbeing in many areas, including:
Oral health problems
Mouth breathing dries out the mouth. This can reduce saliva, which means bacteria and leftover food can spend longer on the teeth, increasing the risk of developing problems such as tooth decay and gingivitis (gum disease).
General health problems
Breathing though the mouth can affect other parts of the body in many different ways, from headaches to digestion problems.
- Mouth breathing is linked to high blood pressure (hypertension) and poor circulation, which increase the risk of heart problems.
- Air breathed through the mouth can also contain more toxins and allergens, which can make existing conditions such as asthma and allergies worse.
- Other problems linked with mouth breathing, such as poor oral health and sleep disorders, can also increase overall health risks.
Regular mouth breathing in childhood can affect the development of the jaws, often resulting in a high and narrow palate. This can lead to crowding, when there isn’t enough space for all the teeth. This pressure can cause teeth to protrude or become crooked.
Mouth breathing that lasts into adolescence can also affect the time and success of teeth straightening treatment, making a relapse more likely if the problem isn’t resolved.
Children whose mouth breathing isn’t treated early may develop a long, narrow face with a small lower jaw and chin. This happens because of the way the tongue rests in the mouth to help keep the airway open.
This can usually be avoided if mouth breathing is corrected before the age of 7, but orthodontic treatment may also be effective at guiding the jaws into a more natural position while the jaws are still growing.
The forward thrusting of the tongue caused by mouth breathing can affect children’s speech, typically by developing a lisp. This may be corrected if mouth breathing is treated and the tongue can be encouraged to rest on the palate.
Mouth breathing can also contribute to snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which can disturb children’s sleep and prevent them from feeling fully rested during the day.
As well as causing tiredness and fatigue, sleep disturbances can also impair concentration and memory and affect behaviour, personality and mood. This can affect children’s academic and social development and has been known to lead to misdiagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
What causes mouth breathing?
It’s not always clear why a child is breathing through their mouth, and there can sometimes be several causes overlapping. The most common reasons are:
- allergies or asthma
- large adenoids or tonsils
- chronic colds or respiratory infections (usually temporary)
- physical obstructions in the nasal passages, such as a deviated septum
- thumb or finger sucking causing tongue thrusting
- tongue tie, where the tongue is attached to the floor of the mouth
In some cases, there may be no obvious cause of mouth breathing, as it can just be a habit the child picked up and wasn’t trained out of.
Finding out what’s stopping your child from breathing through their nose is the first step to helping them overcome it and lowering the associated risks.
How is mouth breathing treated?
If you’re noticing symptoms associated with mouth breathing, you should make an appointment with their paediatric dentist or your doctor, who may be able to refer you to another health professional such as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. They can diagnose the issue and tell you what appropriate steps can be taken.
It’s also important to keep up with your child’s regular dental check-ups and oral hygiene cleans as their dentist may be able to spot possible signs of mouth breathing or related problems before they become obvious and when treatment may be easier.
Treatment for mouth breathing is based on what’s causing it. For some children, treatment may involve a combination of approaches with different specialists and home care. Find out about some of these treatment options below.
Mouth breathing can become a bad habit, even if the original cause is resolved. Like other bad habits, it can usually be unlearned, with guidance from an expert such as an ENT or respiratory specialist.
As well as learning to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth, mouth breathing children may also have to adjust to a new tongue posture. Retraining the oral muscles is a process that can be achieved with patience and understanding.
Managing allergies, infections and thumb sucking
If a child’s nose is blocked due to allergies, asthma, infections or other health conditions, managing these conditions could help to clear the nasal passages and allow them to breathe through their nose more easily.
Training them out of thumb and finger sucking could help with breathing and prevent orthodontic issues such as crooked teeth. This usually needs to be combined with tongue exercises and breath retraining to prevent them from slipping back into the habit.
If mouth breathing has caused the jaws to develop abnormally or teeth to become crowded, this may be remedied by orthodontics. This involves fitting braces or other oral appliances that apply force to the teeth or jaws to guide their movement.
Orthodontics has the highest chance of success for children and young teenagers whose jaws are still developing and more easily guided. It can also be effective for many older teens and adults.
Depending on your child’s needs, orthodontics may be used:
- to expand the upper jaw, helping the tongue to rest on the palate and correcting crowding
- to move the lower jaw forward, expanding the airway and restoring a normal facial profile
Orthodontic appliances may be fixed or removable and both require compliance from the child and support from their parent and dentist.
After the initial treatment, a retainer must be worn to help the teeth and jaws hold their new position. The child should also have transitioned to nose breathing or completed other required treatments to avoid an orthodontic relapse.
If nose breathing is prevented by a physical obstruction such as enlarged tonsils or adenoids, a deviated septum or a tongue tie, surgery may be the only way to resolve this problem and help clear the airway. This may be performed by an ENT specialist or other surgeon.
If mouth breathing has caused the jaws to grow abnormally and orthodontics is unlikely to be effective, jaw surgery may be recommended to help bring a lower jaw forward.
Surgery normally needs to be combined with breath retraining and tongue exercises to help children learn the new way of breathing.
Talk to a children’s dentist in Kelmscott
If you think your child is a mouth breather and you want to know what to do, our dentists at Kelmscott Dental can help.
We can examine their mouth and jaws to look for any physical signs that could be causing a breathing disorder and we’ll discuss orthodontic treatments or other options so you can decide what’s best for your child. We also work closely with other health professionals if other therapeutic care is needed.