Airway Development in Kids

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition typically associated with adults. But pediatric sleep apnea – snoring in children – happens much more frequently than many people realize. As it turns out, there are some very good reasons why. In some ways, young children can be more predisposed to snoring than adults.

  • A child’s airway is generally a small diameter and shorter than an adult’s airway, particularly in the glottis (the portion of the larynx that contains the vocal cords).
  • The epiglottis (the flap of cartilage that keeps food from entering the airway) is relatively long and floppy for small children.
  • The tongue in the oropharynx (the portion of the throat at the very back of the mouth, behind the oral cavity) is relatively larger in kids than in adults.

Put it all together – the relatively larger tongue, the naturally smaller airway, the greater likelihood for the epiglottis to get in the way – and children can be naturally predisposed to chronic snoring. It’s a major reason that parents of newborns are strongly advised to lay their babies on their sides when putting them down to sleep as a preventative measure against crib death.

What’s more, children can come up against upper respiratory illnesses more frequently than adults. As pretty much any parent can readily attest, runny noses, nasal infections and head colds can be more or less nonstop for toddlers and preschoolers. And kids are especially susceptible to croup, which is characterized by swelling of the airway.

With all that in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s not uncommon for children to become accustomed to breathing through their mouth when they’re little. We’ve covered the issue of mouth breathing – breathing through the mouth instead of the nose while asleep – in other blog posts. The upshot is that it contributes heavily to obstructive sleep apnea, or chronic snoring.

But for kids who are still undergoing a lot of growth and development, mouth breathing can present some serious consequences. In nasal breathing, the tongue rests along the roof of the mouth, and the regular pressure against the teeth can help the form outward properly. Mouth breathing forces the tongue to rest on the lower jaw instead of against the roof of the mouth, which can cause both the upper and lower jaw to poorly form at the same time.

This can have severe long-term consequences for children. They can end up with crooked teeth, misalignment of the joints in the jaw resulting in TMJ disorder, and airway development problems causing obstructive sleep apnea.

So if your child is dealing with this, how can you address it so they get back on the path to healthy development, along with getting back to a good night’s sleep?

  • Address their upper respiratory issues early if possible. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but if you can help your little one avoid the upper respiratory issues that can lead to mouth breathing, you can typically prevent him or her from developing the habit of mouth breathing in the first place.
  • Oral appliances for children have become a proven solution to help children with jaw development issues. By using the right kind of oral appliance, the inside of the oral cavity is reshaped to create more space. And for small children, it’s generally much easier to treat with early intervention. Even in cases in which an oral appliance is needed to improve jaw alignment, children often need to wear the appliance for a much shorter time than adults to achieve the same effects.

Early intervention for children who are still growing and developing can be critical to helping them avoid more serious complications down the road.