Updated for 2018 – Is Thumb Sucking Bad for Your Child’s Teeth?

All babies suck their thumbs at one point or another, some even before they are born – expectant parents have seen it on the ultrasound! It’s a typical phenomenon that is completely harmless – up to a certain age. Sucking their thumb won’t cause long term damage while your child only has baby teeth, but when their permanent teeth start to come in the habit can begin to affect their smile long term.

 

Why do kids suck their thumbs?

Babies and small children often suck their thumbs to cope with stress and tension, or to to calm and settle themselves down. The habit is developed during feeding when they are infants, whether they are breastfed or bottle fed. Sucking is actually an instinctual reflex that babies are born with! This is a very important reflex because it makes eating possible.

Because thumb sucking makes babies feel secure (like a pacifier), some might eventually develop a habit of thumb sucking when they’re in need of soothing or going to sleep. Parents should monitor how often their child sucks their thumb, and if they child is actually sucking or just leaving their thumb in their mouth.

 

What problems can thumb sucking cause?

Children can suck their thumbs when they are very young without damaging the alignment of their teeth or jaws, but once their permanent teeth start coming in, around age 4-6, this habit can begin to cause long term issues. Prolonged thumb sucking most often causes issues like an anterior open bite (when your front teeth don’t come together but your molars do), a posterior crossbite (where your front teeth overbite and your molars underbite, creating a misalignment that crosses over around the canines), or an anterior excessive overjet (deep overbite where your top teeth significantly overhang your bottom teeth).

In more extreme situations, excessive thumb sucking can lead to bigger issues like the narrowing of the jaw or palate, altered breathing patterns, abnormal swallow patterns, hindered speech, or abnormal tongue rest. These issues typically only arise when the thumb sucking is chronic and lasts much longer than average. Pacifiers that are still used too late into development can also cause some of these same issues.

 

Replacement Behaviors

Replacement behaviors and solutions will work differently for different kids, so you may need to try a variety of solutions before you find the one that works best for your child. The first step should be having a conversation with your child about the thumb sucking. Communicate your concerns in terms that they will be able to understand, and see if reasoning and reminders are enough. If this does not work, you can try tactics like chewelry (‘jewelry’ designed for children to chew on when they are transitioning out of thumb sucking) or bad-tasting nail polish that is safe for kids. No matter what you try, be sure to praise your child when you notice that they have not been sucking their thumb. This will help reinforce their new habit.

 

While thumb sucking can help babies develop the muscles in their mouth, this benefit is maximized by early infancy. If these tactics do not work for you and your child, talk to your pediatric dentist for additional suggestions and support. We are here to help!

 

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