6 min read

Will Thumb Sucking Harm My Child’s Teeth?

Thumb sucking is so natural for babies that it is hard to imagine it could possibly harm them. Some of the cutest ultrasounds even show babies sucking their thumb while still in their mother’s womb. It helps them self soothe and is especially helpful during the pain of teething. Yet, many mothers have been told that they need to stop their child’s thumb sucking because it will cause problems with their teeth. Is this true? If so, how soon should you stop your child’s thumb sucking habit?

All babies have a natural urge to suckle during the first six months of their lives. This important reflex helps them feed well, comfort themselves, and explore their world. For many, the natural outcome is to find their thumb, and this usually happens before they are three months old. It is helpful for babies from birth to six months old, as it develops and strengthens mouth and jaw muscles. As they grow, it helps them fall asleep and comfort themselves when separated from their parents, or anytime they feel scared, anxious or even hungry. Many children will naturally wean themselves between the ages of two and four. Is it okay to let thumb sucking go on that long, or will it cause lasting damage to teeth?

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that “parents should discourage the habit after age 4.” The main reason for ending the habit at this particular age is that permanent teeth may begin growing in at this time. Thumb sucking while permanent teeth are growing in can cause skeletal changes to the jaw, problems with the alignment of your child’s teeth, and it may also change the way the roof of their mouth forms. Generally, more active thumb sucking with a lot of movement is more likely to lead to problems, but not every child who finds their thumb will have poor dental development from it.

The most common issues resulting from thumb sucking are various types of malocclusion, which is the term for misaligned teeth. Open bite is when the front teeth point outward and do not meet when the mouth is completely closed. As you can imagine, this leads to problems when biting, chewing and speaking. Another type of malocclusion, an overbite, is seen when the upper front teeth overhang the bottom teeth, possibly preventing the front top and bottom teeth from touching. An overbite may change the shape of the face, and even change your child’s smile. If severe enough, both of these types of malocclusion will require extensive orthodontic treatment.

If the shape of the jaw or the roof of the mouth are changed, many other problems can emerge as well. This also may cause improperly aligned teeth and interfere with your child’s ability to bite and chew. The shape of the jaw impacts speech, and thumb sucking may cause the jaw to form in a way that leads to a lisp or other speech impediments. As the speech impediment is caused by the shape of the jaw, palate and teeth, orthodontic care may be required to correct the issue, in addition to speech therapy. Finally, improper formation of the jaw and palate also may impact your child’s airways, leading to poor breathing during sleep.

Although the ADA recommends discouraging thumb sucking after age four, some dentists suggest ending the habit sometime between the ages of six months and one year. There are a few reasons for this. First, the earlier you stop a habit the easier it usually is to break. Second, dental health is impacted even during the baby and toddler years. Our jaws’ shape begins forming during infancy, and primary teeth set the path for permanent teeth. Therefore, it makes sense that issues in development during these years will not suddenly disappear when the primary teeth emerge and may lead to all the possible problems caused by thumb sucking past the age of four.

Every child is different, and a thumb sucking habit may not cause any problems in one child, then cause noticeable damage to a sibling’s teeth, jaw and palate. As a parent, you will be able to easily see if thumb sucking is causing a problem for your child. No matter how young they are, if you notice your child beginning to develop a problem with their speech or bite, or their front teeth starting to jut out, it is time to consult a dentist. Dr. Culp and our expert, caring staff will help you determine if damage is beginning to occur and help develop strategies to change your child’s habit when necessary.

If thumb sucking potentially causes so many problems, are pacifiers a better alternative? Pacifiers hold the same benefits and problems that thumb sucking does, with a few differences. Some children simply will not take a pacifier no matter how much you try, and pacifiers can drop and get dirty or lost. The main benefit of a pacifier is that the habit is easier to end because you can take it away or cut off the end which eliminates much of the satisfaction from the sensation of sucking.

Whether or not thumb sucking is causing problems, at some point you will probably need to help your child stop the habit. There are many ways to do this, and what works for one child may not work for another. Here are some possible tools to help your child stop the habit.

Gentle reminders and positive reinforcement are greatly effective in changing behaviors. Positive reinforcement includes praising your child when they remember not to suck their thumb and creating a sticker or star chart to reward them for it. Gently reminding your child to stop will help but may take many times before they begin to remember. When you remind them, it could help to hold their hand, distract them with a toy, or give them a comfort item like a favorite stuffed animal or toy to hold instead.

Thumb sucking may have different triggers, such as stress, tiredness, hunger or even boredom. Helping your child stop will be much easier if you know what is triggering it. If it is hunger, give them food. When it is close to mealtime, providing something like carrots for older children may be enough to satisfy the need to suck their thumb. Boredom can easily be distracted with a toy, game or singing.

Since thumb sucking is a way for babies and children to comfort themselves, stress may make the habit worse. Nagging or punishing for it may backfire, as it can cause more stress and give your child a greater need for self-comforting behaviors. If stress seems to cause the thumb sucking, comfort and love will help minimize the need, as can talking with children about what causes the anxiety or unhappiness once they are old enough to speak. After the first year of life, the self-comforting mechanism of thumb sucking causes children to zone out and withdraw from their environment. Giving them tools to cope with stress should also help lessen the need to suck their thumb in that type of situation.

It may be more difficult to break the habit if your child sucks their thumb to fall asleep or continues it while they are sleeping. If this is the case, you can try to replace their thumb with a favorite stuffed animal or blanket. It may help to cover their hand with a sock at night. You can also coat your child’s thumb with a bitter tasting medicine, but it is vitally important to speak to a pediatric dentist first, since many bitter tasting household items are dangerous to your child.

Finally, the earlier you stop a habit the easier it usually is to end, so try while your child is still young. That being said, each child will be ready at different ages. So, unless there is noticeable harm to your child’s mouth or speech from thumb sucking, don’t force them to stop if they are obviously not ready. As with any other comfort habit, it is best not to try to end it if your child is ill or facing a major change such as moving or starting preschool.

Your child’s dentist may also be able to help you with finding strategies to encourage your child to stop sucking their thumb. At Jungle Roots Children’s Dentistry, our emphasis is on prevention, and we are happy to work with you and your child to find effective tools to end this habit before it causes damage to their dental development. If problems are starting to appear, we will usually wait and see if they will self-correct. In cases where treatment is necessary, we will work with you and your family to find the best solution so your child can enjoy a lifetime of dental health.

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.

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