Is Thumb Sucking Bad for Your Child’s Teeth?

Thumb sucking is natural for most children if not all. Sucking on their thumbs, fingers, pacifiers, and other objects can help make babies feel happy and secure. Young children may also suck to soothe themselves. As a parent, thumb sucking is a cause of worry because we want them to grow up properly, but you don’t want them to retain the habits that can jeopardize their development. And there’s the notion that thumb sucking can lead to tooth decay and the need for braces in the future. Is it really true?

Since thumb sucking is a habit that seems to calm your child, you might hate to take it away from them, but you don’t want it to cause harm.

Why do babies feel the urge to suck their thumbs?

Thumb sucking is perfectly acceptable behavior for infants. It is, in fact, a natural reflex that can often be seen in the womb during development. This can give your baby comfort and makes him/her feel secure and happy. A lot of babies also suck their thumb as a coping mechanism when they are separated from their parents, or when they are anxious. It also relaxes a baby, and this is why children may suck their thumbs in the evening before they go to bed.

How long does a child normally suck their thumb?

The habit of thumb sucking usually progresses until they become toddlers. Children usually stop thumb sucking at the age of two to four years old, or by the time that their permanent front teeth are ready to erupt. If your child is still thumb sucking after that stage, then it becomes inappropriate behavior that can cause damage to your child’s development, and damage to the teeth. You can consult your pediatric dentist for help. There are treatments and strategies to help stop the habit. The best time to break the habit is sooner, rather than later, especially if you are seeing an impact on your child’s baby teeth.

How can it affect my child’s teeth?

When your child has temporary teeth, there isn’t a lot you can do to hurt the permanent ones. Behaviors like thumb sucking and brushing teeth may be developed early in life, and they become a habit that has more staying power. However, when your child begins to grow their permanent teeth, thumb sucking may cause problems with the alignment of their teeth. This can also affect the formation of the roof of their mouth.

So for occasional thumb suckers, the consequences may not be lasting long. But if your child uses his or her thumb constantly for comfort, it may cause a dental problem in the long run. If he or she is an aggressive thumb-sucker, you may begin to notice the effects with their temporary teeth early on.  

Pacifiers can also affect the teeth the same way sucking fingers, and thumbs do, but it’s often an easier habit to break.

Vigorous and excessive thumb sucking can have different effects on the teeth and mouth because of the pressure put on by the act of sucking and the regular placement of the thumb inside the mouth. For one, it may cause sensitivity to the roof of the mouth. It may also cause overbite (a condition where the front teeth protrude out of the jaw and mouth), open bite (where the top and bottom teeth do not meet when the mouth is closed, and other bite issues, such as when the bottom teeth are tipping inward towards the back of the mouth. These conditions may cause your child to need braces in the future, which is expensive. Furthermore, it can also cause changes to the shape of the jaw, which can affect speech patterns and teeth alignment.

How can I break my child’s thumb-sucking habit?

When your child is younger than four years old, give your children time because they will give up the habit on their own. If you really want it to stop, the first thing to do is to simply ignore it. Once they figure out that it is not helping them earn your attention, they may stop it altogether. Also, children figure it out on their own that this behavior is unacceptable from social situations. But if your child seems unable to stop when they have reached past age four, and their permanent teeth are starting to grow (and when they are about to enter kindergarten), then you have to do something and intervene. Here are some of the things you can do:

Take note of their thumb sucking triggers

Children have different reasons to suck. Some do it when they are bored, tired, sleepy, hungry, or anxious. If they appear to suck their thumb as a means to soothe themselves when they are stressed, figure out the root cause of anxiety and help prevent it. If they are sucking their thumbs for other reasons, then try to engage them in activities that use the hands such as drawing, playing Legos or playing catch. You may end up with things getting sticky and icky, but be patient. Just don’t let thumb sucking be a means for them to get attention, be it positive or negative.

Offer pacifiers for babies

If your baby has the tendency to suck his or her thumb, give him/her a pacifier instead. These are easier to take away, and they may not want to use it anymore when they are past the infancy stage.

Use praise and reward

Once your child reaches the age of three and he/she is still thumb sucking, you can gently talk and explain why it’s so important not to suck thumbs. Then, think of a reward that will encourage them to stop doing it (of course, don’t give them tooth-harming treats!). Once they try to stop, notice it, and praise them for it. You can also give them some extra hugs or extra playtime. When you catch them sucking their thumb, offer a gentle reminder rather than scolding. Resist giving them the “treat” once they do it again.

Keep track and remind them daily

To help with your praise and reward tactic, you can keep track of the absence of the behavior with a sticker chart. Kids love getting stickers that indicate they are “very good.” This will encourage them to stop thumb sucking gradually.

Ask help from a pediatric dentist

If the habit becomes hard to stop, ask help from your child’s dentist. Let your child know the type of damage thumb sucking can do. You may not be able to convince them, but it’s more likely that they will believe someone you call “doctor.” Also, a dentist or an orthodontic can recommend an orthodontic device that you can use to disrupt your child’s ability to thumb suck.

Use thumb shields

There are different types of shields you can put into your child’s thumb or hand so they can avoid sucking. There are fabric and soft plastic thumb guards you can buy and put into your child’s thumb as a reminder not to suck their thumb. Also, you can cover your child’s hand with a glove, sock, or mitten if they do it before sleeping. But if your child only does this while sleeping, take note that it’s not something they can control.