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How Thumb Sucking Can Affect a Child’s Teeth

Thumb sucking is a common habit in small children and has even been observed in fetuses. Sucking is a natural reflex in infants, and many will put their hands, fingers or thumbs in their mouths. Many such youngsters will suck their thumbs while holding a security blanket or some other beloved object. Babies find thumb sucking soothing and will do it when tired, bored, or anxious.

Many children stop sucking their thumbs on their own as toddlers when they are between two and four years old. Teasing encourages older children who’ve clung to the habit to give it up. Even children who have abandoned thumb sucking may revert to it if they’re sufficiently upset.

When does thumb sucking become a problem?

Many orthodontists believe that thumb sucking isn’t a problem until the permanent teeth start to come in. It will then start causing dental problems affecting the alignment of the teeth. The result is often an overbite or open bite.

Others argue that thumb sucking can start to cause problems by as early as age four. A small child’s jawbones are still soft and pliable, and prolonged thumb sucking could eventually alter their shape. Thumb sucking will also make the dental arches more narrow which will cause the upper front teeth to get pushed outward while the lower teeth are forced inward.

Prolonged thumb sucking can also affect the palate or roof of the mouth. That, in turn, can cause such serious problems as difficulties chewing or speaking. Common speech impediments seen in children who suck their thumbs include lisping, thrusting the tongue out while talking, and difficulties pronouncing certain letters like T and D. Thumb sucking will also force the tongue out of place that could lead to problems with learning to swallow.

When should parents intervene?

Parents might want to step in if:

  • The child still frequently sucks their thumb, and they are over four years old
  • The thumb sucking is starting to cause visible dental problems
  • The thumb sucking embarrasses the child

What methods help?
Simply ignoring the thumb sucking sometimes works, especially if the child does so to try to get attention. Parents should also try to identify stressors that make a child want to suck their thumb. If the child sucks their thumb due to anxiety, the parents should figure out what the problem is and help the child find another way to cope.

Parents can also use positive reinforcement such as praise to encourage a child when they don’t suck their thumb. They should not use negative reinforcement like scolding or ridicule since that tends to make the thumb sucking worse.

At Ragan Orthodontics, we offer oral appliances that are designed to discourage thumb sucking. Thumb crib appliances and thumb guards can help deter children from sucking their thumbs. To learn more about thumb sucking treatments and options, contact Ragan Orthodontics today.