By the time a child reaches age 3 — and even earlier if necessary — they should visit a dentist for their very first exam. During this early visit, the dentist makes sure those first teeth are where they should be — but they also observe something that might seem like it has nothing to do with teeth.
The dentist watches how your child breathes, and what you may learn from this early screening can pave the way for a healthier future for your child.
The way your child breathes can affect the way their face develops, which in turn impacts the shape of their jaw, dental arch and palate, according to Dr. Nancy Hartrick of Hartrick Dentistry, P.C. in Royal Oak.
“Environmental stressors can set up breathing behaviors that can cause a child to compensate and breathe through their mouth instead of their nose. This compensation causes soft tissue dysfunction, impacting the structure of the upper jaw, which is 80% developed by age 6,” Hartrick says. “Air pollution, allergies, even eating softer foods that don’t utilize muscles, can affect the structure.”
Kids who regularly breathe through their mouths develop what experts call long face syndrome, which means the face has grown vertically rather than horizontally. Kids with long face syndrome are more likely to develop narrow dental arches, crooked teeth, a recessed chin and a dysfunctional bite — as well as sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
These problems are much easier to recognize when they are advanced, but by that time, they are more difficult to treat, says Hartrick, who lectures around the world on topics related to facial growth and development and early intervention for children with airway and sleep issues.
An early screening
“At this first visit, we screen for any problems with a simple yes or no questionnaire,” Hartrick explains. Hartrick and her highly trained dental staff ask parents if their child snores or breathes loudly when they sleep, if they breathe through their mouths during the day, if they wake with a dry mouth, if they are hard to wake in the morning or act sleepy during the day, or if they occasionally wet the bed. Sometimes kids who have been diagnosed with attention deficit actually suffer from poor sleep because of airway obstruction.
“Then we go from screening to data collection, treatment options and resolutions,” Hartrick says. “Maybe we will see an 11-year-old who wets the bed, can’t function in school, who is tired and in distress. We have many objective and subjective measurements.”
Treatment is individualized, based on the age and need of the patient, but typically intervention is easier and more effective for young patients. That’s why Hartrick encourages parents to watch their child’s development from birth, because even common problems with a baby’s tongue can cause the jaw to grow abnormally. Even before the age of 3, parents shouldn’t hesitate to take their child for a first dental visit, especially if they suspect there may be problems.
“These changes occur early, so when your baby is born, make sure you check that they are screened for tongue tie,” Hartrick says, referring to an easily treatable condition that occurs when the lingual frenulum, or thick band of tissue under the tongue, is short, making it difficult for a baby to freely lift their tongue. “A lactation consultant at the hospital can check for tongue tie and early intervention is key.”
While not every dentist will recognize the connections between dental health, airway obstruction and overall physical health of a child, Hartrick and her team work to raise awareness so that more individuals can find resolution. “I’ve been on this quest for six or seven years, and it’s a passion of mine,” Hartrick says. “I started learning about this because, as a health care professional, I recognize that the No.1 cause of death is cardiovascular disease, which is related to inflammation. What causes inflammation? Among other things, airway obstruction.”
Here, Dr. Hartrick shares some helpful resources for learning more about optimal jaw development:
- Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor
- Mouth Breathing in Children from Dr. German Ramirez-Yanez
- Shut Your Mouth and Change Your Life, a TED Talk by Patrick McKeown
- One More Reason to Get a Good Night’s Sleep, a TED Talk by Jeff Iliff
Learn more and schedule your child’s dental visit at Hartrick Dentistry, P.C. at hartrickdentistry.com.