Breathing is something that begins the moment we enter the world and continues until the day we die. A person who lives to 80 years of age will take approximately 670,000,000 breaths in a lifetime.
It’s a function of your body that’s critical to your survival, and after all, breathing is intuitive. Breathing dysfunction is frequently associated with common musculoskeletal problems and is present in approximately 60% of active, healthy adults. It is also a contributing factor in movement dysfunction and can lead to decreased pain thresholds and impaired motor control and balance. Therefore it is one of the most vital functions of the human body and overtime, the breaths we take can have either a positive or negative effect on our bodies. (We wrote about the fundamentals of breathing here)
It has been well established in numerous studies that normal breathing should be achieved nasally. However, in the presence of stress and/or airway obstruction, breathing may be detoured to the oral cavity which can have serious implications on an individual’s health, such as influencing the position of our teeth, how we talk, quality of our sleep and mental and facial development problems.
Habitual mouth breathing is characterised by an individual breathing in and out through the mouth for sustained periods of time, and at regular intervals during rest or sleep.
This is particularly a problem in children as it helps shape orofacial structures as they grow and typically results in “long face syndrome” (long, narrow faces, narrow mouths, high palatal vaults, dental malocclusion, gummy smiles).
The human nose was designed for breathing (and smelling) and the mouth for eating, drinking and speaking. Yet up to half of modern adults breathe through their mouth, especially during the night and early hours of the morning. Reasons for this may be due to either a physical airway obstruction (deviated septums, nasal congestion, small nostrils) or environmental factors (stress, eating processed foods, excessive talking).
Breathing in through the nose allows us to take fuller, deeper breaths and stimulates the nasal mucosa and the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to fall into a deep sleep. This deep sleep triggers Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which is essential for a child’s brain development and long bone growth. Breathing in through the mouth, however, bypasses this nasal mucosa and stimulates sympathetic nerve receptors which pushes us to become more hyperactive and prevents us from entering a deep sleep. As a result, our bodies produce adrenaline to compensate for sleepiness and we get into the cycle of waking up unrefreshed and suffering the consequences throughout the day. Children, however, respond to sleepiness in a different way to adults - instead of feeing sluggish, children tend to speed up to overcompensate, thus sleep deprivation is often confused with ADHD and other behavioural issues, along with a lowered immune system.
There is 10-30% more oxygen uptake with nasal breathing over oral breathing along with 50% more resistance in the airstream. This resistance helps maintain elasticity of the lungs to improve overall lung volumes. In short, there is less oxygen to the brain with mouth breathing which makes learning and ability to focus difficult. Thus children who sleep with their mouth open aren’t able to achieve their academic potential as their bodies can’t perform at their best in a deep sleep-deprived state. Another problem that can stem from child mouth breathers is developing a lisp. This is because when a child sleeps with their mouth open, they develop “tongue thrust swallowing pattern” so when speaking or swallowing, the tongue protrudes, making “s” sounds difficult.
As you can see, there are a multitude of problems that can result from sleeping with your mouth open at night such as suffering from chronic fatigue and brain fog as an adult and more crucial of a problem in children as their bodies develop. So what are some things you can do to train ourselves or children out of this habit if you realise it may be a problem in your/their lives?
During the daytime you can practice the optimal breathing pattern which is slow(~8-10 breaths per minute), deep (from the belly), nasal breathing. This reduces the respiratory rate and increases CO2 levels in the blood, allowing the body to leave its stressed state. You could leave sticky notes around to remind yourself to nasal breathe. If there is any airway obstruction, a nose clearing exercise you can do is breathe through your nose for 2-3 minutes straight, then close your mouth, inhale deeply and pinch nose with your fingers. When you can’t hold your breath any longer, slowly exhale through your nose and repeat several times until it is clear.
These following methods during nighttime are particularly useful for children who will have difficulty changing this pattern themselves. Before bedtime, use a nasal steroid or saline decongestant spray or nasal strip under the nostrils to clear the nasal passage or use tape to seal the lips during sleep until nasal breathing becomes habitual. Mouth breathing typically happens when sleeping on your back so sleeping on your side forces heavier breaths through the nose so try changing sleep positions. If you are unable to change your sleeping position, you can elevate the head using a pillow or wedge to 30-60 degree angle which helps promote nasal breathing and keeps mouth closed.
These methods may be difficult and take time to replicate into you or your childrens’ lives but it is essential to get any of these problems properly assessed by medical and dental professionals so that the physical, mental and emotional consequences of mouth breathing can be promptly treated.