How Thumb Sucking Damages Oral Health

Thumb sucking is a natural soothing instinct performed by infants and toddlers to put them at ease and relax them. It is used as a coping mechanism to soothe themselves and fall asleep on their own. If your child does not suck their thumb, they may suck on a pacifier or want to use a baby bottle a lot. 

While engaging in any of these behaviors for a prolonged amount of time can cause long-term oral health issues, thumb sucking poses additional risks of germs. Kids’ fingers are often unsanitary and harbor bacteria, especially under their fingernails. Thumb sucking can be a more difficult behavior to wean your child off of because the stimulus cannot be completely removed.

Complications of Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking can cause many different oral health, social, and skin problems when the behavior goes on for too long. Children who suck their thumbs for a prolonged period are at a higher risk for misaligned teeth and malocclusions such as changes to the child’s bite. 

Changes to the jaw and roof of the mouth can result in a narrower jaw or an open or overbite. These alignment and jaw issues can result in your child having a lisp or speed impediment that will also have an impact on them socially. The thumb used for soothing may also develop skin problems over time due to repeated moisture and pressure.

When Does Thumb Sucking Become Harmful?

Children typically stop sucking their thumb or on a pacifier of their own accord between the ages of 2-4 years old. However, some children may have a harder time kicking the habit, especially if they are more prone to anxiety or stress. 

The sooner you can wean your child off of these sucking habits, the more likely your child’s teeth and jaw will grow correctly. The older your child is when they are sucking their thumb, the higher the risk is of oral health issues. 

Your child should stop sucking their thumb by the time their permanent teeth come in because this is when malocclusions and crooked teeth will become permanent. Ideally, you should try to wean them off the behavior by the time they turn 2 years old.

How to Stop Your Child’s Thumb Sucking Habit

Thumb sucking can be more difficult to discourage than pacifiers and baby bottles because your child always has access to their thumbs. While it is important to help your child break the habit, you should not use punishments or criticism to do this. 

Positive reinforcement is the most effective strategy to break this habit in children. Reward your child when they refrain from sucking their thumb. Offer alternative coping mechanisms to them when they are upset or trying to fall asleep. 

Instead of criticizing your child when they suck their thumb, try praising them when they don’t do it. Offer gentle reminders when they do suck their thumb but try not to scold them or draw too much attention to it.

Treatment for Orthodontic Issues Caused By Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking can produce different problems with the teeth and jaw alignment so the necessary treatment will depend on the severity of the orthodontic issue. If your child is still very young, ceasing the behavior may be enough for alignment issues to be self-corrected. 

However, once the permanent teeth are coming in, the problem is likely permanent and will require orthodontic treatment such as braces, clear aligners, palatal expanders, surgery, or two-phase orthodontic treatment.

Orthodontic Screenings at Big Picture Pediatric Dentistry

If your child has a thumb-sucking habit that has persisted for years and you’re worried about potential long-term oral health effects, you should have them come in for an orthodontic screening. Orthodontic screenings can identify the presence of orthodontic problems and the need for treatment. 

If we detect any tooth or jaw alignment issues, we can refer your child to an orthodontist. We recommend getting an orthodontic screening by 6 years old at our Houston office, around the time that permanent teeth are coming in. Contact us at Big Picture Pediatric Dentistry today to schedule an appointment with Dr. Jason Brock.

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