How Does Thumb-Sucking Impact Your Child’s Teeth?

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Today we’re going to talk about thumb-sucking. It’s a habit that begins as early as in the womb – some ultrasound images have shown fetuses sucking their thumbs! But why do kids suck their thumbs? What are the side effects of thumb-sucking on your child’s teeth? And how can you get them to break the habit if thumb-sucking is having an impact? Let’s explore.

When does thumb-sucking start?

While thumb sucking can be found in fetuses, most infants do not start sucking their thumbs until a few months after birth, typically between 2-4 months of age. It is a natural reflex and a way for babies to soothe themselves. Many infants find comfort in sucking on their fingers, thumbs, or pacifiers. 

The habit usually peaks between 6-18 months of age, but some children may continue to suck their thumbs beyond this age. In most cases, children will stop sucking their thumbs on their own as they grow and develop other coping mechanisms. 

However, if the habit persists, parents may need to intervene and help their child break the habit.

Why do kids suck their thumbs?

A non-nutritive sucking habit sucks on a finger, thumb, pacifier, or other object for comfort or relaxation, rather than for the purpose of obtaining nutrition. It is common in infants and young children, but some adults also engage in it.

Non-nutritive sucking habits can have both positive and negative effects. In infants, non-nutritive sucking can help to soothe and calm them. It may also aid in the development of oral motor skills. However, if the habit persists beyond infancy, it can lead to dental problems such as malocclusion (misalignment of teeth) and social and emotional issues related to dependence on the habit for comfort.

The impacts of thumb-sucking on your child’s teeth

A non-nutritive sucking habit, such as thumb sucking or pacifier use, can have both positive and negative consequences. This is especially true when it comes to their teeth.

Let’s first look at some of the positive side effects of thumb-sucking or pacifier use…

  • It can be a comforting and self-soothing behavior, especially in infants and young children.
  • It may aid in the development of oral motor skills in infants.
  • It can help infants fall asleep and stay asleep longer.
  • It has been shown to reduce the incidence of SIDS.

However, there are also many negative consequences. A few more specific negative side effects of thumbsucking are…

  • Prolonged nonnutritive sucking can cause dental problems, such as misalignment of teeth, open bite, crossbite, or overbite, which may require orthodontic treatment.
  • Prolonged pacifier use can also increase the risk of ear infections and speech delay.
  • It may interfere with speech development in children if the habit continues beyond the age of 2-3 years.
  • It can have social and emotional consequences, as children who continue to suck their thumbs or use pacifiers beyond the recommended age may experience teasing, embarrassment, and anxiety related to dependence on the habit.

Eventually, with significant pressure and time, thumb sucking can impact your child’s teeth in the ways mentioned above. These changes may be exclusively dental – only resulting in shifting teeth – or they may restrict normal growth of the bones of the face, which have many more long-term consequences. 

If the disruption is dental only, the teeth will often shift back once the habit is discontinued. When bone growth is disrupted, the airway and breathing can be impacted. 

How to get your child to quit thumb sucking

Stopping a child from sucking their thumb can be challenging, as it is often a self-soothing behavior that they engage in unconsciously. 

Our strategy to stop the habit will depend on the child’s age and comprehension level. Physical barriers can serve as gentle reminders for very young children. Elbow braces, like Nipit, and thumb guards, like the T-Guard, work well for toddlers that aren’t especially committed to thumb sucking.  Children who are dependent on the soothing benefits of it, however, will likely overcome physical barriers. 

For children who express a desire to quit, positive daily reinforcement with a reward can be successful. Techniques like sticker charts have been shown to work in young children for only very short-duration goals since long-range goals are very challenging. Discontinuing a habit like thumb-sucking can be the ideal application of a motivation chart.

I encourage parents that even if we only reduce the habit’s intensity or duration, we can help prevent some of the consequences of thumb-sucking.

Strategies that parents can use to help their child quit thumbsucking

  1. Positive reinforcement: Praise your child when they are not sucking their thumb, and offer rewards for going extended periods without doing so.
  2. Distraction: Encourage your child to engage in activities that keep their hands busy, such as playing with toys or doing puzzles.
  3. Substitution: Offer your child an alternative comfort object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket, that they can use instead of their thumb.
  4. Gentle reminders: Remind your child gently to stop sucking their thumb when you notice them doing so.
  5. Consulting a professional: If the habit persists or is causing dental problems, consult a pediatric dentist or orthodontist for further guidance and treatment.

Remember – it’s important to approach the habit with patience and understanding, as it may take time for your child to break the habit. Additionally, avoid using harsh punishments or shaming tactics, as this may cause your child to feel anxious or stressed, which may exacerbate the behavior.

Looking for your pediatric dentist in Bellevue?

Expedition Pediatric Dentistry is a pediatric dentist in Bellevue, WA, providing dental care for infants, children, and adolescents in Bellevue, WA. We also accommodate special needs! If you’re local, book an appointment, and we can figure out the best treatment plan for your child from our office!

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