Orofacial myology, the way the mouth and face develop, is a bigger deal that you may think!
Breastfeeding bestows innumerable benefits to babies, so much so that scientists are still counting the perks. And it's not just the breastmilk that has researchers talking, but the very act of feeding at the breast versus a bottle.

From eye-tracking development to oxytocin-boosting touch, to cue-based eating habits, latching at the breast is about way more than simply a way for baby to get to his mother's milk. Another benefit of the act of breastfeeding, just beginning to gain attention, is healthy orofacial myology.

Kim Reidy, RDH, is a dental hygienist and orofacial myologist in Kearney, Nebraska. She spoke at a November seminar hosted by the Kearney Community Breastfeeding Initiative. I walked into the room assuming that I'd hear largely of tongue tie. Turns out, orofacial myology is about a whole lot more -- in and out of the mouth.

Related: Is There Really a Tongue-Tie Epidemic?

I spent much of the seminar feeling the shape of my hard palate with my tongue and contemplating exactly how it got to be that way. And I left with a greater appreciation of just how much our feeding habits formed as infants can affect our health through adulthood.

Orofacial myology refers to the way our oral-facial muscles affect the growth of (not only the shape of) our mouths, but also of our teeth placement, jaw development, our entire airway, and even our upper digestive tract. As Kim explained, the whole concept behind orofacial myology is that "muscle changes bone" and it affects "everything from the sinus cavities to the diaphram."

When a baby breastfeeds, her tongue and jaw muscles move in a way that is completely different than when she's taking a bottle. In short, she has to work her orofacial muscles to be able to remove milk from the breast. This develops a characteristic strong jaw. Babies who receive only bottles have a differing orofacial myology.

Orofacial myology exists in degrees, and there are cases of significant dysfunction where the tongue and jaw muscles have developed in such a way that tongue thrusts forward while swallowing.

Babies are born with an immature swallow that is designed to adopt an adult swallowing pattern by 6 months old. During swallowing, the lips should be closed, the teeth should meet, and the tongue should be held against the roof of the mouth behind the upper front teeth.

Tongue-thrusting literally pushes the tongue against the back of the top front teeth and the hard palate at the base of the back of the front teeth so that, over time, the teeth and hard palate change shape. The roof of the mouth becomes narrow and highly arched. The front teeth protrude outward. There may be cross bites and open bites. The chin may be receded. In fact, the entire profile of the child's face may grow differently.

While orofacial myologists can reduce symptoms with certain tongue and mouth exercises, sometimes the only option for severe cases is a surgical resetting of the jaw.

Most orofacial myology dysfunction is not so severe as to require major orthodontics and surgical correction. But even relatively mild cases in children may benefit from treatment with an orofacial myologist.

It's not just a cosmetic issue! Orofacial myology dysfunction is associated with a host of chronic medical conditions that may begin in childhood and then continue through adulthood. It may not be surprising that orofacial myology can cause dental and speech issues, but how about obstructive sleep apnea from a weak larynx and enlarged tonsils, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from reduced lung capacity, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) from swallowing air, and even poor posture from suboptimal neck muscle development? There is even the possibility of contribution to some psychological conditions.

Here's a trivia fact for you: Endorphins and serotonin are produced whenever the tongue touches the hard palate, so that a person with a typical-shaped palate and tongue position are continually making and swallowing their own antidepressants.

Related: Cortisol Levels in Women's Hair May Predict Postpartum Depression

Amazing to think of everything that even a slight difference in oral-facial muscle development might affect. And, to think, this is just to name a few.

So, what are some clues that you or your child may have an orofacial myology dysfunction?
  • Certain orthondontic issues
  • Mouth-breathing, rather than nose-breathing
  • Chest-breathing, rather than diaphram-breathing
  • Tongue not at roof of the mouth while resting
  • Pursing of the lips and grimacing while swallowing
  • A high, narrow palate.
A healthy palate is wide and relatively flat with a slight arch, formed by the tongue beginning in infancy. Excessive pacifier use, and thumb-sucking, will both change the shape of the palate. Running my tongue over my hard palate, I can feel the distinct shape of where my thumb fit. I sucked my thumb through my early childhood years. I wonder how much of my GERD, which began in childhood, is related to my high-domed palate. And I think I solved the mystery of my enlarged tonsils.

I'm way past the opportunity for treatment. Orofacial myology therapy must be done before the child stops growing. Besides, said Kim, therapy is much harder work than prevention any day.

She advises parents to:
  • Breastfeed at least through the first year,
  • Get tongue ties clipped,
  • Consider having severe lip ties revised,
  • Do daily tummy time for at least 15 minutes per time,
  • Throw out the pacifier by 4 months old, and before that age, only allow pacifier use during bedtime,
  • Encourage babies to chew on anything safe while teething,
  • Use only straw-based sippy cups, and
  • Monitor their children for chronic nasal congestion, treating as needed to prevent mouth-breathing habits.
To be clear, while bottle-feeding does influence orofacial myology, disorders are more likely due to long-standing, excessive pacifier use, thumb-sucking, and chronic nasal congestion especially due to untreated allergies. Sometimes no cause can be found. Genetics and nutritional deficiencies may also be contributing factors.

But, with all this said, the fact still remains that the healthiest orofacial myology will be associated most often with breastfed babies.