Breastfeeding has tons of benefits. One major, oftentimes overlooked benefit is its effect on the development of an infant’s jaw. It all starts with the tongue. The tongue is an essential piece of the body that shapes the airway. The position of your infant’s tongue and the strength it receives from breastfeeding plays a huge role in your baby’s facial development throughout their childhood. Here’s everything you need to know about the role of the tongue in breastfeeding, and how breastfeeding and jaw development are closely related.
The Mechanics of Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding provides healthier babies and mothers. The milk offers vital nutrients for infants. Also, the act of breastfeeding and the mechanics of the tongue, jaw, and mouth positively affect the infant’s facial and airway development.
Breastfeeding requires an infant to actively use many different muscles when pulling milk from the breast. First, to latch, a baby pushes their tongue out to seal its lips to the breast. Once latched, the baby presses the nipple against the roof of the mouth, which expands the upper jaw (and creates space for teeth to come in straight). Next, the tongue rolls from front to back and creates suction. After the baby sucks enough milk, the infant pushes the back of the tongue to the roof and lets the milk go down the throat.
This process not only expands the upper palette, but also strengthens the tongue and jaw. It also expands the dental arch, which provides more room for the airway and for incoming teeth. It also reduces the chance of developing sleep apnea and breathing issues in later years.
Why Do Some Babies Have Struggles With Breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding should be natural, smooth, and simple. However, it’s not always the case, and more common is to need some assistance with breastfeeding! There are many reasons why infants struggle with breastfeeding, such as being born premature or being unwell. In some cases, an infant is born with a tongue-tie or lip-tie, which restricts the tongue and/or lip and makes the latching and sucking process very difficult.
Some common signs of a tongue-tie or lip-tie include:
- Difficulty maintaining a latch on breast or bottle
- Poor quality of latch with breast or bottle
- Improper seal/leaking milk from the nipple
- Failure to thrive, poor weight gain
- Pain on breastfeeding
- Mastitis, clogged ducts, changes in supply
- Excessive gassiness, reflux, spitting up, colic
- Frustration at the breast
- Choking, gulping, gasping at the breast
- Clicking, gumming, chewing nipples
- Falling asleep at the breast with short sleep cycles
- Frequent of extended nursing cycles
- White coating on the tongue
- Inability to flange upper or lower lips
If you suspect your child has a restricted tongue or lip, schedule an assessment as soon as possible. A frenectomy can release the restriction and help your baby not only nurse better, but grow better.
How do pacifiers and bottles play into it all?
Pacifiers, thumb-sucking and bottle use has been at the center of debate for years. How long should a child use the devices? And what role do play on the child’s facial development?
While it is common to allow the use of pacifiers, bottles, and thumb-sucking, it is important to begin weaning them off by 6 months. A good goal is to eliminate them entirely by 10 months of age to prevent long-term developmental effects with the child’s jaw, dental health, facial structure, and airway. There are many side effects of prolonged oral behaviors common to babies, including:
- Open bites
- Misaligned bites
- Misaligned jaw
- Mis-shapen mouth
- Tilted teeth
Try your best to wean your child from these devices before they turn a year old. We know, easier said than done.
Schedule a Virtual Consultation With the Bloom Center for Sleep & Airway Health Team
Breastfeeding and jaw development, and the tongue are very closely related. If you are breastfeeding, keep an eye out for signs of a tongue-tie. If your infant struggles to latch, is frequently gassy/fussy, has poor weight gain, or has any related symptoms, there is a chance that a tongue-tie or lip-tie is at the source of the problem. If left untreated, a tongue-tie or lip-tie can also lead to facial development issues and sleep-disordered breathing problems as your child ages.
Schedule a virtual consultation with Dr. Turner if you have questions or concerns regarding your child’s jaw development and we’ll get to know you and evaluate your unique needs.
Interested in learning more about the proper development and function of facial muscles? Visit our myofunctional therapy page here.
Want to learn more? Download our Parent’s Guide to a Healthy Child here.