Do airway issues impact speech?
Airway issues can have a significant impact on a child’s ability to speak clearly and effectively during their early years of development. This is because the proper functioning of the airway is essential for the production of speech sounds. When a child experiences issues with their airway, it can affect the way they speak and communicate with others, which can have lasting effects on their social and emotional development. It can also have drastic impacts on early feeding, particularly transition to lumps and solids, as children will always protect their airway functioning over nutrition (this is a basic survival instinct – respiration comes first!)
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
One common airway issue that can affect speech clarity in early childhood is a condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when a child’s airway is partially or completely blocked during sleep, leading to disruptions in breathing patterns. This can cause a child to snore, gasp for air, or even stop breathing temporarily during the night. OSA can also affect a child’s ability to speak clearly during waking hours, as it can cause inflammation in the throat and vocal cords, making it more difficult to produce speech sounds.
Blocked nasal passages
Another airway issue that can impact speech clarity in early childhood is chronic nasal congestion. When a child’s nasal passages are consistently blocked or congested, it can make it harder for them to breathe through their nose, which can lead to mouth breathing. Mouth breathing can cause a child to speak with a nasal or congested sounding voice, which can be difficult for others to understand.
Enlarged tonsils and adenoids
Enlarged tonsils and adenoids are another common airway issue that can affect speech clarity in early childhood. When the tonsils and adenoids become enlarged, they can obstruct the airway, making it more difficult for a child to breathe properly. This can cause a child to speak with a muffled or garbled sounding voice, as the obstruction in their airway can interfere with the production of speech sounds. Speech Pathologists might describe this in your reports as ‘nasality of speech’.
If left untreated, airway issues can have a significant impact on a child’s social and emotional development. Children who struggle to speak clearly may become frustrated when others cannot understand them, leading to a lack of confidence in their communication skills. This can make it harder for them to form relationships with peers, as they may struggle to communicate effectively in social situations. Additionally, if a child’s airway issues cause disruptions in their sleep patterns, they may become irritable or have difficulty concentrating during the day, which can further impact their social and emotional wellbeing. There is a wealth of research on the co-occurrence of airway obstruction and attention-deficit symptoms.
Airway issues: Treatment options
Fortunately, there are several treatment options available for children with airway issues that can help improve their speech clarity and overall wellbeing. In cases of OSA, a child may be referred to a sleep specialist who can recommend treatments such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy or surgery to remove the obstruction in the airway. Chronic nasal congestion can often be treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications, such as nasal decongestants or antihistamines. Enlarged tonsils and adenoids can be removed through a surgical procedure called a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.
In addition to medical treatments, speech therapy can also be beneficial for children with airway issues. Speech therapists can work with children to improve their articulation and pronunciation of speech sounds, as well as teach them strategies for speaking more clearly and effectively. By improving a child’s speech clarity, they can boost their confidence and improve their ability to communicate with others, which can have a positive impact on their social and emotional wellbeing. Speech Pathologists will often refer to an Otolaryngologist (or ENT) early in the therapy journey. An Orofacial Myologist may also be helpful as a part of the therapy team. If you are interested to know what an oromyofunctional disorder might look like, check out this page in the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA); https://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/orofacial-myofunctional-disorders/
If you have concerns about your child’s breathing, please seek a referral to an ENT by your GP so you are able to claim the Medicare rebate.