6 min read

How We Treat Prolonged Thumb Sucking

Just like people, our teeth, gums and supporting bones are as unique as our DNA. Unlike DNA, teeth, gums, and supporting bones can change throughout a person’s life. Heredity, environment, and certain foods and conditions can affect the position, shape, color, and health of our teeth. That is why it is important to understand that your dental health is, in large part, something you can assume responsibility for and take charge of in order to make sure you are able to keep your teeth for a lifetime.

It is a common misconception that orthodontics is for aesthetics and vanity. In truth, orthodontics is about so much more than creating a smile to be proud of. In most circumstances, correcting the misalignment of teeth and jaw positions can improve a person’s quality of life.

At Jungle Roots, our goal is to educate our patients and parents, so that you are armed with the latest information in order to make the best decisions for yourself and your child. In this series of Orthodontic articles, we will be providing you with warning signs to look for, how certain conditions can affect tooth health, and Jungle Roots’ treatment philosophies and options for improving the health of your family’s teeth and supporting gums and bones.

In this first article, we are going to discuss prolonged thumb sucking. We will explain how it can change the mouth in ways that are detrimental to a person’s health, provide ideas and resources for intervention, and explain how we treat thumb sucking that is harming the development of the mouth.

Last year, we discussed thumb and finger sucking in young children, and explained that it is completely natural, often beneficial for the child’s ability to self-soothe, and rarely harmful to the mouth before age 4. Most children wean themselves from the habit sometime between the ages of 2 and 4. What happens when it continues beyond age 4? How will you know if the habit is becoming harmful to your child’s health?

How can thumb sucking be harmful?

If thumb or finger sucking is impacting the shape of your child’s mouth, you will often be able to see it in your child’s primary teeth. Usually, if the baby teeth are being affected by the thumb or finger habit, the roof of their mouth, supporting bones, and permanent teeth are also being affected by the thumb or finger habit. Some common results of prolonged thumb or finger sucking are a narrow palate, an open bite, and a crossbite.

Open Bite

Overbite and Crossbite

Narrow Palate

What happens if the issue is not treated?

A narrow palate, open bite, crossbite, and other alignment problems impact far more than the way your child’s teeth look. They can cause mouth breathing, sleep apnea, poor tongue posture, speech problems, tongue thrusting, and an abnormal swallowing pattern. Each of these problems can lead to other health conditions, and even harm a child’s self-esteem and performance in school.

How to help your child break the habit.

Many children will spontaneously stop on their own when they are 3 or 4. If the health of their mouth depends on breaking the habit before they are ready to quit on their own, or they are still sucking well past the average age of quitting, it will be helpful to identify the main factor or factors that cause your child to suck on a finger or thumb. Common factors are tiredness, stress or anxiety, boredom, and even hunger. Once you know what is causing the habit, you can address the underlying need each time they put a finger or thumb in their mouth.

Luckily, there are many techniques that are completely successful in helping children quit a thumb or finger sucking habit before the habit becomes unhealthy for their developing mouth. It is important to note that there are no quick fixes. Most strategies require time and consistent effort. If you remember for a few days then let it slide for a day or two, it will be very difficult to successfully help your child stop.

  • Gently remind your child every time you see a thumb or finger in their mouth.
  • Give them something to distract them, such as a favorite stuffed animal or toy to hold or play with, play a game together, or cuddle them.
  • Use a chart and/or rewards system. You can modify it for your child, but some options are to mark the chart when they go a certain amount of time, such as an hour or two or a day, without putting their thumb in their mouth. If they are resistant to the idea of stopping, they could mark the chart when they stop sucking without complaining after being reminded. It may be helpful for some children to receive a reward once their chart has a certain number of marks.
  • Give your child plenty of encouragement and praise when they go a while without sucking their thumb or remember to stop without a reminder.
  • For older children, you could put a band-aid over the finger they usually suck on. This could be enough to help them remember their goal.
  • If the thumb sucking occurs during the night, it may help to cover their hand with a sock.
  • Avoid scolding or other forms of negative reinforcement as it could increase stress and make the habit worse.

No matter what you try, breaking this habit will only be successful if your child is ready and willing. There are a couple of things you can try to help a child become willing to stop the habit.

In younger children, you can attach stopping the habit to a milestone. Perhaps spend time explaining that they are becoming a big kid, and once they have their fourth or fifth birthday it will be time to stop sucking on their thumb or finger. Discuss options for helping them stop and let them help you pick out the strategy. This mental preparation may be enough to help them become emotionally ready to stop once the set day arrives.

If an older child is resisting the idea of stopping, it may help to explain why it is important for their health to quit. A discussion with their dentist about the benefits of stopping the habit may also help.

When to seek Orthodontic treatment.

The best time to begin treatment is during the mixed dentition phase when your child has permanent teeth and primary teeth. The teeth and bones move easiest in this phase, so treatment during this time brings optimal results and reduces the risk of permanent damage from prolonged thumb or finger sucking.

However, if you notice that your child’s teeth or jaw are poorly aligned earlier than this, it is a good idea to schedule a consultation at the age of 7. We can assess the extent of the damage and monitor your child’s growth and the development of their teeth, palate, and supporting bones. This will allow us to determine whether your child’s mouth is naturally correcting itself, or if they will need early intervention to avoid greater difficulties later.

How we treat thumb and finger sucking.

Most kids will stop before they need orthodontic intervention. If orthodontic intervention is required, it is important that your child is willing to cooperate and try to stop sucking their thumb or finger.

Since children develop differently, there are a couple of options for treatment, depending on the extent of the damage already seen. Early intervention is important because the amount of damage thumb sucking causes to the palate, jaw, bite, and teeth increases with time. The earlier the habit is stopped, the more likely it is that the bite will self-correct.

If we are simply trying to stop the habit, we would use a habit reminder, also called a thumb crib or thumb reminder. A habit reminder makes it difficult to suck on a thumb or finger and takes away the comfort of sucking. These are custom made and fitted to the roof of the mouth. They are not a removable orthodontic appliance and stay in place until the habit stops.

Habit Reminders:

If the palate (roof of the mouth) has already become too narrow and your child is old enough to begin early orthodontic treatments, we will use a palatal expander with a habit reminder attached to it. If you want more information about expanding the palate, we have written this article explaining the details. The expander stays in the mouth for 12 months, and the habit reminder comes out when the habit stops.

Palatal Expander

Palatal Expander with an attached Habit Reminder:

If your child’s thumb or finger sucking habit has become an issue, we are here to help. We can discuss the benefits of stopping with your child during their regular dental check-up, book a consultation to assess the problem, or use an appliance to help them stop the habit. Our goal is to help your child enjoy the benefits of a healthy mouth, and correct issues before they become a problem. So, please let us know if you have any concerns about your child’s dental health and we will do our best to help!

At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry & Orthodontics, we strive to provide the highest comprehensive pediatric and orthodontic dental care in a unique, fun-filled environment staffed by a team of caring, energetic professionals. We believe the establishment of a “dental home” at an early age is the key to a lifetime of positive visits to the dentist.

Call Us - (480) 759-1119

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