It’s getting hard these days to find a kid who’s not got a mouth full of stainless steel, rubber bands or some other combination of metals and plastic materials. Children don’t like braces, and neither do parents’ pocketbooks. But what can we do if we want our children to be healthy and have attractive smiles? Here are five things.
The basic cause of crooked teeth is the shrinkage of the human jaw in response to the environmental changes following industrialization. There has been a transition to less breastfeeding, weaning to especially soft foods and general liquefaction of the human diet. And people have moved indoors where allergens like dust mites and formaldehyde are concentrated. The resulting lack of exercise for jaw muscles and stuffy childhood noses have caused shrinkage of the jaws, leading to crooked teeth, mouth breathing and narrowing of the airway.
So start your kids out right. Nursing can be tough for working mothers, but if you can, do it for a long time. Breastfeeding gives an infant´s jaws exercise that drinking from a bottle does not. Weirdly, although the medical community urges us to exercise all the other muscles of our body, somehow the jaws and tongue get left out. Think of what childrens´ leg development would be like if they were only occasionally allowed to walk? Perhaps a mother will, wisely, pump her breast milk so that her child can get its nutritional benefits while Mom is at work; but this overlooks the exercise component of suckling directly from the breast.
2. Seek foods that require more chewing.
If breastfeeding is not an option, don’t despair. Weaning into harder unprocessed foods may actually be more important and can help baby catch up on much-needed jaw exercise training. Consider ditching baby food, hamburgers, smoothies and similarly soft foods. Talk to your pediatrician about whether she recommends this for your child and how best to prevent choking.
3. Choose a daycare that’s fastidious about cleanliness.
Daycares that practice careful hygiene can help limit repeated upper respiratory infections. The fewer stuffy noses your child gets, the less she’ll need to breathe through her mouth. The less mouth breathing, the less likely your child will need braces.
4. Start exercises to develop proper oral posture.
Teeth lightly together, tongue against the roof of the mouth behinds the upper incisors. Whether nursing or drinking from a bottle, it’s a good idea to emulate the old Native American habit of gently pinching the baby’s lips closed when it’s finished to start training them not to mouth breathe.
5. Learn the early signs of trouble and address ASAP.
They can sometimes be spotted in even very young infants. A healthy child will ordinarily sleep with its mouth closed, breathing inaudibly, without making a mess of the covers. Older kids may have a charming smile, but if they show a lot of gum, that’s a danger sign.
Move immediately to appropriate corrective action for your offspring’s age and condition. Don’t be fooled by the frequent advice to “wait until all the permanent teeth are in to fix the problem.” That might be right if crooked teeth were the problem, but remember it’s actually inadequate jaw development. And that, in turn, can reduce the chances of needing braces.
Find an orthodontist or dentist who is airway-centric and concerned with jaw size and its influence on the openness of the airway, not in just arranging the teeth to give a pretty smile. Avoid anyone who wants to extract teeth to achieve that end. Extracting teeth moves structures backward, reduces space in the mouth for the tongue and thus can lead to the back of the tongue constricting the throat. It then encourages sleep apnea and stress, and all the ailments to which stress is related.
All this sounds daunting, but it can be extremely important for your child. In summary, pay close attention to your child’s jaw development just as you do to the development of other parts of her body. “Use it or lose it” applies to jaws too.
Sandra Kahn is a highly experienced clinical orthodontist and Paul Ehrlich is a well-known environmental scientist and expert in human evolution. Their book, Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic, expands on the topics covered here and includes extensive scientific documentation. The authors are donating all proceeds from the book to nonprofits working on this epidemic.