Messy Eating and Myofunctional Disorders

March 13, 2023, Kyle Isaacs

Asian child eating watermelon

Is your child a messy eater? Are they super picky about what they eat, and do they prefer softer foods like chicken nuggets, apple sauce, and the like? Do they take a long time to finish a meal, or do they never finish it? What about eating so fast that they do not chew their food? Maybe they constantly chew with their mouth open? Any of these habits can be frustrating, but it also might mean there are underlying issues that need to be checked out. These eating habits can be clues to something called myofunctional disorders.

I bet you are wondering what a myofunctional disorder is. They are issues that affect the function of the muscles that we use to eat, smile, frown, swallow, and chew, as well as the use of the tongue and how we breathe. Difficulty with any of these can lead to other issues like snoring, tooth grinding, sleep apnea and other sleep issues, digestive problems, challenging behaviors, and more.

I bet you are wondering how and why people have myofunctional disorders. Well, you see, when we stopped being hunters and gatherers and started farming about 10,000-12,000 years ago, we stopped eating foods that required a lot of chewing, and we started eating softer foods. Over time, the size and shape of our jaws became smaller, making our airways smaller, and our 32 teeth could no longer fit properly. Now we eat a lot of processed foods, soft foods, and foods in bags (those applesauce and other convenient kid foods that only require sucking). This means our jaws are not getting the proper exercise they need.

funny face expression with open mouth of blonde caucasian three years old child, sleeping on king bedA smaller jaw means more of us will have difficulty breathing through our noses. This also means that where our tongue sits will be affected. Mouth breathers and those with a tongue tie usually rest their tongue on the bottom or floor of the mouth. The tongue is a fantastic expander of the roof of the mouth, and without it being up there all the time, the muscles of the face will mold the jaw and make it narrower, with the roof of the mouth high and V-shaped. This means the teeth have less space, so they do not fit properly. Even more interesting, when the roof of the mouth is narrow and high, the nasal cavity will be smaller. All this makes it harder to breathe through the nose. The more we breathe through our mouths, the stuffier our noses get, and then it is harder to breathe through the nose, and then it becomes a vicious cycle.

Nasal breathing warms and moistens the air and filters out bacteria and viruses. Nasal breathing also makes nitric oxide which is important for better health because it is antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal. Nasal breathing also gets more oxygen to the rest of the body (18% more) and helps make exercise and sports easier. Mouth breathing during sleep means we do not get into the deep sleep cycle. This can affect the growing brain of kids. Anyone not getting deep, restful sleep will feel tired and irritable.

When people have difficulty breathing with their nose, they are more likely to swallow air when eating. This also happens when we eat fast and don’t chew our food properly. This can make it much harder to digest food, causing stomach issues, gas, constipation, and bloating. So you can see how we breathe affects how we grow, eat, and digest our food. The next time your child eats, look for signs of myofunctional issues.

Little girl sits in dental chair and wears protective glasses. Seeing an orthodontist early to evaluate for tooth crowding and small or underdeveloped jaws is important as some things can be done before all the permanent teeth erupt to help make more space. I would also recommend a myofunctional assessment to evaluate the muscles, tongue, breathing, and oral habits.