Clear speech results from smooth interaction between your respiratory system, vocal cords, teeth, tongue, jaws, palate, and lips, as these move to control airflow and make speech sounds. Some speech impediments (or problems with speaking clearly, such as lisps and other poorly formed sounds) can be treated with some help from your dentist.
Please note that you should visit a speech therapist if you suspect speech disorders developing in your child, as not all speech disorders are caused by physical or motor disorders (they are brain- related), while some relate to the vocal cords, respiratory system, or muscles of the face and mouth, rather than the teeth. In this post we will be focussing only on dental issues that can affect speech.
In some cases, fixing teeth problems can help your child’s speech by improving what is known as articulation (clear pronunciation of speech sounds). A combination of a diagnosis from your dentist and some assistance from a speech therapist may be called for if you notice any of these issues.
To see the effect of your teeth on speech sounds, try making a ’t’ sound and a ‘th’ sound and notice how you use your teeth to make them. Saying the word ‘teeth’ slowly is quite a good demonstration! Some sounds can be almost impossible to form clearly if the teeth are not where they are supposed to be to form a particular sound.
There are two main groups of problems with sounds caused by teeth. The first is overcrowded or too widely spaced teeth, and the second type is when teeth on the top and bottom jaw do not line up properly, such as an overbite or open bite.
Overcrowded teeth can affect how free your tongue is to move in the mouth and this affects clear speech and regulation of talking speed. It can result in slurring or stuttering. Braces can help open up the jaw and straighten and align overcrowded teeth so that the tongue can move properly.
Large gaps between teeth
Large gaps can result in whistling sounds when speaking as air moves through the gaps even when the top and bottom rows of teeth close to make some sounds. In lots of cases, the gaps will close up as the larger permanent teeth replace baby teeth, but if they do not, then your dentist may advise a visit to the orthodontist and getting braces to close the gaps.
An overbite is when the upper teeth overlap the lower teeth too much. Overbites can get in the way of putting the tongue in the right place for some sounds, and prevent the teeth connecting to stop airflow for other sounds, causing whistling and lisps. Braces can be helpful in correcting an overbite.
Open bites affect airflow as the top and bottom teeth cannot close properly. This can cause a lisp. Your dentist can point this problem out to you and will probably recommend braces.
Regular checkups on your child’s oral health (see this post for more information on appropriate ages and tooth care) can mean an earlier diagnosis of teeth issues that could affect speech. Your teeth are not just part of a pretty face and a happy smile, they affect your speech too, and need to be taken good care of.