Sweet Lullaby: Better Sleep for ChildrenMar 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By Marlaina Donato and Kirby Baldwin
Sleep is essential for both survival and the ability to thrive, yet as children’s schedules get busier and they spend more time in front of screens, their average sleep time often decreases. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids between the ages of 6 and 12 get nine to 12 hours of sleep per night for optimal health, they’re regularly getting less, and about 15 to 25 percent of youngsters and adolescents have trouble falling and staying asleep.
In a recent study published in The Lancet, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that children that get less than nine hours of sleep per night have notable differences in areas of the brain that influence memory, intelligence and well-being compared to those that slept more than nine hours. According to researchers, such insufficiencies in early adolescence can lead to long-lasting neurocognitive consequences.
Why Kids Aren’t Sleeping
Anna Esparham, M.D., FAAP, an integrative medical expert with the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends that parents look for clues as to why their children can’t sleep, including stress, increased screen time and less physical activity. However, there may be other underlying issues.
A lesser-known culprit that may contribute to a child’s compromised sleep is impaired mouth syndrome (IMS), coined by dentist Felix Liao, a certified airway-centered mouth doctor and past-president of the International Academy of Biological Dentistry and Medicine. “Most people, including many dentists, don’t realize the influence that the mouth has on the body,” he says. “The mouth is the portal to the inside. With impaired mouth syndrome, the child can still chew, smile and talk, but the body’s health can be compromised.”
While birth trauma, concussion and viruses can precipitate mouth breathing, and chronic allergies often exacerbate matters, immature swallowing can set off a cascade of problems. The mouth is a critical infrastructure for proper breathing, circulation, digestion, energy and sleep. IMS occurs when jaw development is insufficient, thereby giving rise to numerous difficulties, such as a narrower airway, which can cause hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen. Liao notes that poor sleep quality can also lead to learning and behavioral problems.
“Breastfeeding stimulates bone growth and jaw development through the tongue’s instinctive action and ideally enables a child to have a mature swallow by age 2,” says Amy Dayries-Ling, DMD, FAIHM, a national spokesperson for the American Dental Association. In her book, Solve Your Sleep: Get to the Core of Your Snore for Better Health, Dayries-Ling connects the dots between the vital role of the tongue during breastfeeding, balanced stimulation from the vagus nerve and beneficial spaces between milk teeth for a well-developed dental arch.
Correcting Structural Problems
From a holistic perspective, improperly working muscles of the tongue, throat and face or a compromised jawbone can foster a predisposition to a number of seemingly unrelated conditions, including dental problems, teeth grinding, asthma, bedwetting, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, poor growth, swollen tonsils and pediatric obstructive sleep apnea. Dayries-Ling recommends that parents seek out a myofunctional therapist that can help retrain muscles and free up the airway. Building an integrative team is vital, including a dentist trained to address structural issues.
Zahra Punjani, an International Academy of Oral Medicine & Toxicology-certified integrative dentist and owner of Bloom Holistic Dentistry in Dunwoody, approaches issues of teeth grinding, swollen gums or poor sleep by first exploring why the issues are happening. “That always leads to looking at the airway and the muscle position and the function of the tongue.”
She likes to start pediatric patients with a sleep questionnaire. “It brings up a lot of things that one might not think about discussing with their dentist. It gives us a good snapshot if there are sleep or breathing issues.”
Then her team looks at alignment issues. “We dig deeper in our overall assessments to see what are the root causes of the malocclusion.” Once a thorough assessment is performed, Punjani’s team takes an interdisciplinary approach with the pediatrician, ENT or myofunctional therapist who can help patients strengthen muscle function and teach the tongue to function normally to avoid relapse.
Shannon Thorsteinson, DMD, owner and CEO of Wellspring Dental in Atlanta, says the most important thing when it comes to IMF is to evaluate symptoms. “We like to say sleep should be ‘dry’—no drooling, sweating or bedwetting—‘quiet’—no snoring or heavy breathing—and ‘still’—no restless sleep or messy sheets. Even things like crooked teeth are actually just a symptom of structural or functional concerns that might need to be addressed,” she says.
“We recommend a three-pronged approach where we create space for the tongue and teeth by developing the jaws, reinforce healthy habits for the muscles of the mouth and face and release tethered oral tissues if appropriate.”
Life seems to be a much brighter place after a good night’s sleep, and kids are our future. Digging deeper for their optimum, long-term well-being is a vital investment. ❧
Marlaina Donato is an author, painter and host of multimedia art exhibits intended for healing the community. Connect at WildflowerLady.com.
Kirby Baldwin is an editor and writer for KnoWEwell, the Regenerative Whole Health Hub and parent company of Natural Awakenings Publishing Corp.