How your kids breathe at night could impact their physical and mental development.
The Dangers of Poor Sleep
Poor sleep in adults has been linked to a host of health concerns, ranging from bad moods and fatigue to cognitive decline and heart problems as we age.
Surprisingly, sleep concerns are widespread among children as well. One study found that 24% of all children, and up to 40% of children under two, had frequent problems sleeping. In the US, 11 million kids under the age of 10 have sleep problems, leading to breathing, orthodontic, and even learning problems that cost billions of dollars a year in medical and therapeutic expenses. The good news is that researchers believe 30% to 40% of these sleep problems are related to habits and behaviors that your kids can change.1
When kids don’t get enough sleep, they can get grumpy, lose focus in school, and more. Poor sleep can then snowball into acting out and aggressive behavior, as well as feelings of insecurity and being left behind socially–all which leave an indelible dent in self-worth.
Potentially even more alarming is that if sleep-deprived infants and toddlers go untreated, their sleep issues can grow into medical-grade sleep diagnoses, including sleep-disordered breathing (SDB– in which breathing is disrupted or noisy during sleep–and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which breathing is paused throughout the night.1
Studies have linked even mild snoring in children to severe changes in behavior, learning, and mood. By some accounts, snoring may decrease IQ scores by an average of 10 points. If left untreated, snoring has been found to permanently alter cognitive potential, while SDB affects kids’ brains, hearts, blood pressure, weight, growth, appetite, and teeth and jaw development. OSA, which is the more severe version of SDB, causes kids further struggle. OSA kids often have a hard time staying awake and acquire severe learning and behaviors problems, speech delays, and more severe mood stability disorders. What’s worse, 95% of children with OSA are never diagnosed!1
The New Science on Sleep and Brain Health
New science confirms that poor sleep can significantly affect brain health. Newly discovered brain lymphatics, which compose something called the glymphatic system, are compromised by poor sleep. Each year, the average adult drains three pounds of toxic substances and plaque from the brain via the glymphatic system.3 This system also delivers vital nutrients, hormones, neuropeptides, glucose, and fats to the brain. Poor glymphatic flow, commonly caused by inadequate sleep, is linked to a host of physical and mental health concerns in adults and developing children. Studies suggest that the body must cycle through all four stages of sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) for the glymphatic system to effectively feed and detoxify the brain.1
In Ayurveda, the glymphatic system is called tarpaka kapha, and it regulates how we store memories, as well as how we lymphatically clean out our brains. Congestion of the tarpaka kapha is linked to cognitive decline and emotional stress and trauma.(4,5)
Because kids are having sleeping problems that compromise the glymphatic system, researchers are finally investigating the impact the glymphatic system may have on child brain and cognitive development.
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What Prevents us From Getting Good Sleep?
Improper breathing can disrupt the four stages of sleep and REM. And improper breathing can be the result of underdeveloped airways.
Studies having linked the soft comfort foods that kids love to poor development of facial muscles, facial bones, and airways. Kids with SDB and OSA, as well as many special needs kids, have been found to have smaller airways and poor facial development. To compensate for the smaller airways, kids contour their heads into the CRP position in order to breathe, with their heads extended and their mouths open wide to gasp, snore, or snort as much air through their smaller airways.2
While soft foods are sometimes necessary, humans developed chewing fibrous foods that take time to eat. Without a daily jaw workout, especially in early childhood, the jaw, facial bones and airways can’t fully develop. The pressure from chewing floods the oral cavity with stem cells that support full development of open airways. A narrow jaw due to chronic underchewing collapses the upper palate into a V shape, rather than a gentle arch. Examine the hard palate in the roof of your child’s mouth. From the upper molars on one side to the upper molars on the other, the palate should be flat or gently arched. If it is V shaped, then the palate is underdeveloped, not leaving enough room for teeth (including wisdom teeth) and properly formed airways.2,6
If caught early, these developmental abnormalities can be corrected. It’s estimated that 40% can be altered with lifestyle tweaks. Later, corrections can be made with functional orthodontics and myofascial training by an occupational therapist.1
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The Better Way to Breathe and Sleep
In the late 1980s, when I was researching nose breathing in India for my first book, Body Mind and Sport, I repeatedly came across documents describing how parents would train their children to breathe through their noses. One of the signposts of SDB and OSA kids is mouth breathing at night and open mouth drooping during the day.
Mouth breathing at night has been shown to lower blood oxygen saturation levels in the blood, while nose breathing at night forces the tongue up against the upper palate, creating pressure that slowly and steadily widens and flattens the palate. As the palate widens, the airways enlarge, breathing becomes easier, and the muscles of the face and jaw are allowed to properly develop.1,2,7
Nose breathing also delivers the anti-viral gas nitric oxide from the para nasal sinuses into the body. Each time you talk or eat, your lungs are exposed to thousands of bacteria and viruses. With nose breathing, the antiseptic nitric acid gas washes over the respiratory tract each night, disinfecting the lungs with each nasal breath.7
Nose breathing at night also supports the flow of cerebral spinal fluid and the brain glymphatic system. Open mouth breathing at night compromises the efficiency of the brain’s natural detoxification process and nutrient deliver system.
Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep?
While quality of sleep is a crucial indicator of brain and cognitive development in kids, the amount they are getting is just as important. Too much or too little sleep has been linked to a range of physical and mental health concerns. See the chart below, from the book Sleep-Wrecked Kids by Sharon Moore, to see if your child is getting enough sleep.1
Age Hours of Sleep Needed (Per Every 24 Hours)
0-3 months 14-17 hours
2-4 months 12-16 hours
1-2 years 11-14 hours
3-5 years 10-13 hours
6-12 years 9-12 hours
13-18 years 8-10 hours
18+ 7-9 hours
The Fix for Poor Sleep
It can be overwhelming to think about all of this, but remember that up to 40% of sleep problems in children are fixable with some simple lifestyle tweaks. Listen to my podcast with child development and best-selling author of Sleep-Wrecked Kids Sharon Moore to learn how to evaluate the breath efficiency of your children and how to help them make behavioral changes in my podcast. If you have children or are about to be a grandparent like I am, make sure you read this book and watch this engaging podcast. Your children’s wellbeing may depend on it.
Listen to the Podcast
Join us for LifeSpa podcast episode 107, as Dr. John talks with Sharon Moore, the author of Sleep-Wrecked Kids and the founder of Well Spoken—a speech pathology and orofacial myofunctional clinic in Canberra, Australia. In this podcast, you’ll learn how sleep affects a child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional development, and what you can do to help your kids get better sleep.