The function of your face, mouth, and throat is a big deal. Your orofacial health affects your sleep, memory, ability to communicate, learn, grow, and even your mood and emotions. Unfortunately, millions of people live with oral dysfunction and don’t even know it.
Functional problems span everything from poor chewing habits and bad posture to full-blown obstructive sleep apnea and sleep disordered breathing. Sleep and airway issues have been linked to serious diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, dementia, anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, insomnia, and more. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to improve your airway and your overall health.
It is never too late to make improvements to better your health and prevent disease in the future. If you are a parent, you have tremendous influence and a golden window of opportunity to help set your child up for a healthy airway for life. With early intervention and good orofacial habits, you can prevent many life-threatening conditions that often emerge in adulthood.
We’ve based the following dos and don'ts on decades of clinical work and research by renowned speech pathologist and myofunctional expert Sharon Moore. Her empowering book Sleep-Wrecked Kids: Helping Parents Raise Happy, Healthy Kids, One Sleep at a Time offers tips and strategies to help you and your family improve airway health.
Moore’s family-based programs teach parents, children and all family members to establish healthy orofacial habits for everyone through fun, simple games and activities. Her book also covers environmental and routine changes that can help establish better sleep patterns for children.
As you empower yourself with information about airway health, get to know the signs and symptoms of dysfunction. Bags under the eyes, slumping shoulders, and open mouth-breathing are just a few of the many red flags of oral dysfunction. Sleep issues, breathing issues, and even problems with memory and digestion can all be related to the upper airway as well. Little things add up. Chapped lips, inflamed gums, and excessive drooling may not be on your radar, but as you start to “connect the dots” these small signs may point to a larger problem.
Moore maintains that it is just as important for the muscles to rest in the correct position as it is for them to move correctly for daily tasks such as talking, chewing, swallowing, and sucking. In her clinical speech pathology and myofunctional practice, Sharon Moore advocates for three simple elements to counter poor posture and help muscles to rest in the correct place:
Whether your child is experiencing behavioral issues at school, your baby is having trouble breastfeeding, or you are falling asleep at the wheel, listen to your gut if you think something is wrong. Then, find out whether an oral dysfunction or airway issue is a root cause. When normal function is disrupted, there is a lot you can do to take action.
For mild problems and symptoms, addressing your habits, environment, and nutrition can help. In some cases you may need to see medical experts and surround yourself with a team of healthcare professionals from various fields to create an effective treatment plan. While some cases can be resolved with therapy (such as myofunctional, occupational, or speech therapy), others require treatment or surgery with a doctor, dentist, orthodontist, ENT, surgeon, or another specialist.
The way your muscles function influences the way your bones and jaw grow. This plays a huge role in how functional (or dysfunctional) your airway is. Your upper airway is extremely important for your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. Optimize your nutrition and practice orofacial exercises to build a strong and well-formed jaw, facial bones, or teeth.
Chewing is a skill that is central to healthy airway development, as well as digestion. Proper chewing stimulates the healthy growth of the jaw and facial bones. Poor chewing, on the other hand, is related to a narrow jaw structure that can lead to airway issues, dental problems, and sleep disordered breathing.
Keep a look out for open-mouthed chewing, one-sided chewing, gulping, or messy, noisy eating. Digestive problems and bloating can be a sign as well. Devices such as the myo munchee can help children and adults get in prime chewing time every day to tone and strengthen orofacial muscles.
The modern diet is dominated by processed, mushy foods, refined sugars and simple carbohydrates. This soft diet is associated with crooked teeth, small lower jaws, and airway issues. It takes intention to choose a nutritious diet with plenty of chewy fibrous foods like raw fruits and vegetables and cooked meats. A dietician can help you create a plan with healthier options for you and your family.
Airway health starts in the womb. Babies begin to use the muscles for sucking and swallowing in utero, which influences their airway health throughout life. They continue to develop these muscles through breastfeeding. Unfortunately, a bottle doesn’t provide the same functional benefits as the breast.
It is very important that those who are pregnant practice healthy breathing and address sleep disordered breathing and obstructive sleep apnea. These measures may even play a role in reducing the risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, hypertension, and premature birth. This is important because full-term babies are born with well developed lungs and muscles, setting the stage for airway health.
Myofunctional therapy is a subspecialty often practiced by speech pathologists and dental hygienists, often alongside medical and dental treatments. In Sleep-Wrecked Kids, Moore describes myofunctional therapy as the systematic training of the muscles of the upper airway. The myo approach considers the size, shape and structure of the face and upper airway passages, the health of the soft tissues of the face, contributing dental, orthodontic, or medical issues, and early developmental challenges. A Myofunctional program, including assessment and exercises, can help you re-learn healthy muscle movement for daily life.
Many children who are diagnosed with a speech issue, hyperactivity or ADHD have an underlying airway-related sleep issue. That is why it is so important for any child with behavioral issues and learning issues that affect their ability to concentrate and focus to have a sleep study and airway assessment with specialists who can help. It is a good idea to screen for sleep disordered breathing, or even have a sleep study, before creating a treatment plan.
Good breathing, chewing, sucking, and swallowing patterns are directly tied to airway health. These may seem like simple activities, but they actually are quite complex and require the coordination of many muscles.
In her clinic, Sharon Moore recommends two therapeutic approaches — the myo correct and myo optimize. If you or your child have a serious airway or sleep issue that requires intervention and correction, the sooner you begin treatment, the better. But even if you don’t have a pressing problem, you can still establish healthy orofacial habits in your family to prevent disease and promote wellbeing. Either way, a proactive myofunctional approach can make a world of difference.
If you or your child are showing signs of oral dysfunction, a sleep disorder or a myofunctional disorder, it is important to create a team of experts who can help. The best treatment plans are interdisciplinary with good communication between all parts.
In Sleep Wrecked Kids, Moore provides a detailed list of specialists for orofacial disorders and sleep issues. Here are just a few examples of healthcare professionals who can help. For a full and comprehensive list, please refer to Moore's book.
Unfortunately, oral dysfunction has become so common that it has been normalized in modern-day culture. Issues like tongue tie, crooked teeth, sleep apnea and snoring have become so ubiquitous that we often fail to recognize the signs and symptoms. Millions of people carry out daily activities like talking, chewing, breathing, and sleeping, without even knowing that they are perpetuating various forms of oral dysfunction.
The longer a harmful habit persists, the more the pattern is ingrained. That’s why problems like thumb-sucking, mouth breathing, snoring, or restless sleep really do merit attention and intervention. When they notice a problem like mouth breathing, parents are often told their child will “grow out of it.” In many cases, signs and symptoms appear to improve, when in reality the child is actually compensating for their condition in a way that can come back again later in life. Surround yourself with a trusted circle of specialists to address orofacial and airway issues head-on.
Serious myofunctional disorders are often dismissed because we see them across generations in families. For example, it’s common to hear of a baby who snores “just like his dad,” or a child who chews with his mouth open “just like grandma did when she was a kid.” Orofacial patterns exist within families for several reasons. Sometimes, there could be a genetic factor or condition that gets passed on from one generation to the next. In other cases, children learn poor habits from their parents and family members.
Due to the industrialized diet of processed foods and other societal factors, our jaws, teeth and skulls are very often underdeveloped. This leads to crooked teeth, bite issues, and compromised airways. Symptoms may be occasional or mild at first, but can lead to serious problems over time. This is why just about everyone can benefit from myofunctional exercises and other therapies to strengthen and tone the muscles of the face, mouth and throat.
Because orofacial health is an emerging field, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that all healthcare professionals are aware and proactive about catching upper airway issues and making the right referrals. In Sleep-Wrecked Kids, Moore describes one family who saw 23 healthcare professionals before finally finding the right team to help them resolve their child’s airway dysfunction. Continue to seek answers, empower yourself with knowledge, and connect with healthcare professionals who know and understand airway and oral health.
Treating oral dysfunction requires a multi-disciplinary approach that gets to the "root cause" of its presence. Oral dysfunction can cause short- and long-term health issues that are different for each age, which requires a custom treatment plan built just for you.
To set yourself up for success, you want a team that communicates with each other across disciplines for a holistic health approach. A custom, multi-disciplinary approach to address accompanying issues like oral restrictions, speech & language issues, and airway health & sleep will help your family have the best possible outcome.