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Oral Habits: What's the Big Deal?

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Oral habits are intense, frequent oral behaviors that can wreak havoc on your child's facial development and overall health. Things like:

  • Thumb sucking

  • Pacifier use (beyond infancy)

  • Nail biting

  • Lip sucking or biting

  • Chewing on clothing, blankets, lovie

  • Biting/chewing other non-food objects

  • Or any oral habits that interfere with the mouth being closed at rest

Anatomical symptoms that may be associated with oral habits include an anterior open bite, a high palate, overbite, or a mouth that is open at rest (lips parted and tongue low on the floor of the mouth).

The concern is, anything that prevents the tongue from being suctioned to the palate during rest puts a child at risk for developing an orofacial myofunctional disorder (OMD). Orofacial myofunctional disorders are associated with atypical chewing and swallowing patterns, dental malocclusions, blocked nasal airways, and speech problems (IAOM). How does oral rest posture affect these various domains?

  • Development of the mouth: Dental crowding, overbite, high palate, open mouth = dry mouth and decay

  • Airway space: High palate, deviated septum, small mandible, tongue in a slack position that falls into the throat and obstructs the airway during sleep (eg, frequent waking, snoring, not rested upon waking, dark circles under eyes)

  • Weak and inefficient chewing and swallowing: (ie, picky eating, soft food preference, coughing with liquids/solids)

  • Speech: Poor stability for making speech sounds and errors related to tongue thrusting

  • High risk for ortho relapse due to tongue thrust and low resting tongue position

So what is the solution? Myofunctional therapy (or oral motor therapy for little ones under age 4). The first goal is achieving optimal oral rest posture--lips together and tongue suctioned to the palate at rest. Often times by addressing the physiologic need to stimulate the palate, we can eliminate the oral behaviors. Other times, we combine myofunctional therapy with direct intervention of the oral habits. The goal of myofunctional therapy is to strengthen the muscles and create new neuromuscular patterns. What does that mean?

  • Correct oral rest posture

  • Nasal/diaphragmatic breathing

  • Correct chewing and swallowing

The earlier the better. While it is never too late to address orofacial myofunctional issues, the most orofacial development happens before age 5. So, who do you seek out for this type of therapy? It is important to note that 'myofunctional therapy' is a treatment modality and NOT a profession. Those who have myofunctional therapy in their scope of practice include:

  • Speech-Language Pathologists

  • Dentists

  • Dental Hygienists

As Speech-Language Pathologists, we can also directly address concerns related to feeding, swallowing, and speech. Therefore, for younger children presenting with these concerns it is ideal to seek therapy services with a myofunctional-trained SLP.

If you are in the Spokane, Washington area, we specialize in working with tongue ties and myofunctional disorders. Our goal is to help families build a team of providers who can help optimize oral function and quality of life. If you are not in the Spokane area we would be happy to recommend a team of qualified providers in your area. Feel free to send us a message if you are in need of support.

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