There are three periods during the development of the face and jaws that are uniquely sensitive to environmental influences such as nutrition and muscle activity patterns.
1: Prenatal Period
The major structures of the human face and jaws develop during the first trimester of pregnancy. The maxilla (upper jaw) takes form between the 7th and 10th week after conception. The mandible (lower jaw) begins two weeks earlier. The nasal septum, which is the piece of cartilage that forms the structure of the nose and divides the nostrils, appears at week seven and grows most rapidly from weeks 8 to 11. Any disturbance of this developmental window can have major consequences for later occlusion.
2: Early Postnatal Period
The largest postnatal increment in face and jaw growth occurs from birth until age 4. During this period, the deciduous (baby) teeth erupt, and the activity patterns of the jaw and tongue influence the size and shape of the maxilla and the mandible as they grow. The relationship of the jaws to one another is mostly determined during this period, although it can still change later in development.
During this period, the dental arch widens from its center, called the midpalatal suture. This ensures that the jaws are the correct size and shape to eventually accept the permanent teeth without crowding them.
The third major developmental period occurs between ages 11 and 16, depending on the gender and individual, and happens roughly at the same time as the growth spurt in height. The dental arch continues to widen, reaching its final size and shape. Under ideal circumstances, at the end of this period the arch should be large enough to accommodate all teeth, including the third molars (wisdom teeth), without crowding. Narrow dental arches cause malocclusion and third molar crowding.
Growth of the Dental Arch Over Time
The following graph shows the widening of the dental arch over time*. The dotted line represents arch growth while the solid line represents growth in body height. You can see that arch development slows down after 6 years old, resumes around 11, and finally ends at about 18 years. This graph represents the average of many children, so not all children will see these changes at the age indicated. The numbers are in millimeters per year, but keep in mind that the difference between a narrow arch and a broad one is only a few millimeters.
In the next few posts, I'll describe the factors that I believe influence jaw and face structure during the three critical periods of development.
* These data represent many years of measurements collected by Dr. Arne Bjork, who used metallic implants in the maxilla to make precise measurements of arch growth over time in Danish youths. The graph is reproduced from the book A Synopsis of Craniofacial Growth, by Dr. Don M. Ranly. Data come from Dr. Bjork's findings published in the book Postnatal Growth and Development of the Maxillary Complex. You can see some of Dr. Bjork's data in the paper "Sutural Growth of the Upper Face Studied by the Implant Method" (free full text).