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The Tongue’s Incredible Role in Infant Development

The tongue is one of the essential parts of the body. It helps us eat, chew, drink, kiss, swallow, talk, and more. The tongue continues to form and strengthen from early fetal development through childhood. Sometimes, however, some development issues can occur in infants, leading to more significant problems in the future. Read on to learn more about some of the basics of growth and the tongue’s role in infant development. 

The Tongue’s Role in Infant Development

The mouth is a window into the body, and tension on the tongue means there is also tension throughout the rest of the body. If that tension isn’t identified or treated early on in an infant’s life, it can lead to a lifetime of health issues.  

The Tongue and Breathing 

Surprisingly, the position of the tongue can severely affect breathing. If it is larger than usual (because the mouth is too small) or rests lower than it should, it can fully or partially block the airway. Or, if it’s not strong enough, it could fall back during sleep and block the airway (a condition called sleep apnea). 

The tongue is a powerful muscle that shapes the mouth and airway over time. When babies are born, they breathe almost exclusively through their nose for the first few months of life – they are obligate nasal breathers, or at least they should be.  Nasal breathing filters, warms, and humidifies the air while also releasing nitrous oxide (an antibacterial vasodilator) while the tongue is also widening the palate. 

The Tongue and Skeletal/Facial Growth 

The development of a child’s face and jaws is critical for proper airway development, facial profile, TMJ health, and the position and alignment of teeth. When the tongue rests in the upper palate and the air enters through the nose, the face will grow as it should. Average growth promotes a healthy airway and a broad smile with well-aligned teeth and little or reduced need for orthodontic treatment.

The Tongue and Swallowing and Feeding 

Breastfeeding is particularly great for infants’ tongue development, as it requires them to use many different muscles when pulling milk from the breast. The process strengthens the jaw and tongue, and when pressure is being applied to the palate by the entire tongue, jaw growth will be stimulated to be wide and forward – this is best for breathing. An expanded dental arch provides more room for breathing and incoming teeth.

The Tongue and Speech and Pronunciation

As a child begins to grow and practice their speech skills, they may develop a slight lisp. When a lisp sticks around or is accompanied by recognizable speech delays, it’s possible that the tongue’s resting position is abnormal. This can be seen with many compensations to create certain sounds.  This can be because of extended pacifier or bottle use, or long-term thumb-sucking, both of which will show there is disfunction in the swallowing pattern and lack of strength in the tongue. If that’s the case, the tongue’s muscles aren’t working as hard as intended, and therefore falls into an unwanted position on a regular basis.

Characteristics of Newborn and Infant Mouth/Face Structure

Newborn babies have some characteristics that are unique to their age, including small, slightly retruded (pulled back) lower jaws (mandibles), approximately 30 percent of adult size at birth. They also have a tongue that fills the entire mouth when at rest. It should be fully mobile, with a far back positioned lingual frenulum that does not interfere with function. In some infants, the frenulum fails to separate and instead remains attached and restricted, which is called Ankyloglossia or a tongue-tie.  A tongue-tie can be towards the tip of the tongue, but they can also be under the surface (submucosal) – we always tell our patients it’s not necessarily what the tongue tie looks like, but it is how it is impacting the function!

Reasons for Improper Development in Infants

Some causes of poor or improper myofascial development include:

Tongue Tie (lips and cheeks too!)

Unfortunately, there isn’t conclusive research as to why tongue-ties happen – it likely is a combination of genetic variations, exposure to environmental toxins, genetics, and exposure to certain types of folic acid (and/or how the mother metabolizes the folic acid). We all have seven frena in the mouth, but if they are too tight and restrict function, they are considered ‘ties.” A process called ‘apoptosis,’ or programmed cell death, is how the frenulum separates – sort of like the webbing between our finders.  Regardless, a tongue tie is a condition that inhibits the range of motion of the tongue AND contributes to symptoms. One of the biggest reasons we are concerned about ties in the mouth is they can impact growth and development of the jaw!  The ability of the tongue to elevate to the palate expands the jaw bone, allowing for more room for the teeth, better breathing and sleep, and a healthy TMJ. Jaw growth happens EARLY, with 75% being complete by age 6. When we can catch ties early, we can capitalize on this growth period.

Pacifiers, Baby Bottles, and Thumbs 

While these things can be comforting to a child, they can affect the mouth’s shape and teeth alignment. Although the pacifier is undoubtedly a go-to method to calm a baby, weaning them off the pacifier as soon as possible can save the child from the adverse physical effects it may have. The use of these can often be because there is poor oral function and tone, and can also be impacted by the presence of a tongue tie.  The same applies to baby bottles. When it comes to feeding a baby, the best option that supports proper baby jaw development and tooth alignment is to breastfeed. OF COURSE, the most important thing is proper nutrients for your baby, and whether you choose not to breastfeed or are unable to, there are future options to help support your child’s growth. But if making the choice to breastfeed, and you are able to, this is the best thing for optimal growth patterns.

Sippy Cups

Sippy cups can contribute to poor development and jaw problems. They encourage open-mouth breathing and also narrow the dental arch over time. This creates a more petite mouth and a smaller airway, which can lead to breathing and sleeping issues.  We prefer straw cups and open cups for oral development.

Mouth Breathing

Mouth breathing has a series of developmental issues associated with it, including: 

  • Improper jaw development
  • Forward head posture
  • Narrow dental arches
  • Out-of-position jaw or TMJ issues
  • Sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing
  • Teeth clenching and grinding

In addition to fatigue and a higher prevalence of ADHD, it can affect the development of the face, jaw, palate, mouth, and tongue over time. These deformities can contribute to other conditions affecting the child well into adulthood.

Schedule An Appointment at the Untethered Airway Health Center 

If you’d like to learn more about infants’ tongue and mouth growth, and the tongue’s role in development, schedule a virtual consultation with Dr. Turner today. We’ll get to know you and evaluate your family’s unique needs. Want to learn more? Download our Parent’s Guide to a Healthy Child here.

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