How thumb sucking impacts your child’s teeth

How thumb sucking impacts your child’s teeth

Thumb-sucking isn’t an unusual trait amongst small children. In fact, around 75% of infants suck their tiny little thumbs. While it’s cute for parents to see such a milestone, and it can be very soothing to the baby, it’s also natural for parents to question whether or not this is a healthy thing and the potential damage thumb-sucking can have if it becomes a long-term habit. Let’s get those questions answered.

When Does Thumb-Sucking Become A Negative?

Ultrasounds reveal that many fetuses begin sucking their fingers while they’re still in the womb. It’s a comforting behavior that comes natural to small babies, and it’s related to the same urges and reflexes they have to root and suck while nursing. When parents aren’t available for the skin and feeding time they’re craving, then the infant often turns to sucking what he/she can get to their mouth (their finger) as a mechanism to relax and self-soothe.

When does a natural inclination turn into a bad habit? Most pediatric professionals aren’t concerned with thumb-sucking until the child starts to get teeth. It can certainly become problematic, though, if habitual and aggressive thumb-sucking continues after adult teeth start to emerge. The first permanent molars have usually erupted by age six to seven.

When And How Should Thumb-Sucking Be Discouraged?

The self-soothing and anti-anxiety effects of thumb-sucking can be an important aspect of your child building their independence. It’s the first of many ways children learn that mom and dad can’t do everything for them, but it’s not designed to be a long-term coping mechanism.

In many cases, the growing child will simply move on to other positive behaviors that replace thumb-sucking once they’re exposed to environmental influencers, especially once they start to socialize with other children who’ve already ditched thumb-sucking.

Other times, however, thumb-sucking has become such an aggressive habit that the child continues to do it in private and/or public. If it continues past the age of four to five, then it’s time for parents to use positive reinforcement to intervene and break the habit that can be so damaging to upcoming permanent teeth. Remember, thumb-sucking is a natural childhood instinct, meaning that your child can easily interpret aggressive anti-thumb-sucking measures as them being a bad or odd if the discouraging isn’t done in a constructive way. Here are some tips:

  • Gentle reminders to help bring awareness to kids sucking out of pure habit.
  • Education on the health dangers of hand-to-mouth once children get old enough to touch ‘germ-ridden’ objects.
  • Visual reminders, such as a fun sticker or bandaid on their thumb.
  • Use a reward system and or sticker chart to encourage going longer and longer times without thumb-sucking.
  • Encourage younger children aggressively sucking those thumbs to swap to a less-damaging ortho pacifier.
  • Provide a low-stress environment to children constantly feeling the need to self-soothe anxieties.
  • Schedule a dentist appointment so your child can hear from the ‘expert’ how thumb-sucking will impact their beautiful smile.

What Dental Problems Can Result From Letting Thumb-Sucking Go On Too Long?

Thumb-sucking can have serious negative ramifications on emerging adult teeth, which often requires orthodontic services to correct. Here are six of the main potential problems:

1. Overbite – top teeth jut out past the bottom teeth when the child’s mouth is closed. The pressure of the thumb behind the top teeth pushes them forward. While severe overbites can cause the jaw and face to look misshapen, the effects aren’t just visual. Overbites can cause breathing and chewing issues, too.

2. Open bite – with a closed mouth, the front teeth aren’t aligned to make contact, which can cause rear teeth to clash and wear, bite problems, chewing difficulties, swallowing issues, and lisps and other speech impediments.

3. Overcrowding – the upper dental arch’s natural shape is often changed by prolonged thumb-sucking, which results in adult teeth having to shift to grow and emerge, and that causes a crooked smile.

4. Tooth gaps – spaces form between the front teeth due to the pressure applied by the thumb.

5. Soft palate collapse – the roof of the mouth is soft until a child is about six-years-old. Thumb-sucking applies pressure to the soft palate, which can cause it to collapse. Sleep apnea then becomes a concern.

6. Crossbite – the soft palate is pulled down by the thumb-sucking, which cause the back teeth to collapse toward the tongue and the face to appear sunken.

Bottom Line On Thumb-Sucking And Dental Health

Like fire, thumb-sucking isn’t bad by nature, but it can be a destructive force if it gets out of hand or continues without supervision. Hopefully, the above information offers a clearer picture on when thumb-sucking becomes a negative and how prolonged childhood thumb-sucking can be very damaging to adult teeth. If worried about your child’s thumb-sucking habit and potential for dental damage, schedule an appointment with Blalock Orthodontics or your child’s pediatric dentist for comprehensive evaluation and guidance.