Thumb-Sucking’s Effect on Children’s Teeth
Many young children suck their thumbs. It may seem like an innocent and even adorable habit, but it can have serious consequences as your child grows older. Helping them break their thumb-sucking habit while they are young may save them from dental issues down the road.
Why do children suck their thumbs?
Babies are born with natural instincts to suck. As many parents have seen in sonogram pictures, babies often begin to suck their thumbs in the womb. This natural reflex ensures that your baby will learn to eat so that they will grow and thrive.
Eating is often a comforting experience for baby, associated with the closeness of a caregiver. Therefore, a child may learn to associate sucking with comfort even when it is not related to food. Some children seem to use thumb-sucking as a way to self-soothe or fall asleep, while others only seem to suck their thumbs when they are bored.
Risks of extended thumb-sucking
When your child continues to suck their thumb beyond an appropriate age, they are at risk of developing health complications. The most common of these complications is dental malformations. When the teeth rest on the thumb and experience the push of thumbsucking they can begin to slant forward leading to crossbites, overbites, or underbites.
Persistent thumbsucking tends to change the position and motion of the tongue, which can cause a narrowing of the airways. Narrow airways can lead to poor sleep, snoring or even sleep disorders. The altered posture of the tongue may also lead to speech issues or delayed language development.
When should my child stop sucking her thumb?
Children often stop sucking their thumbs on their own as they learn other ways of coping with their feelings. Some people claim that it does not matter as long as the child stops by the time their permanent teeth begin to emerge around age five.
However, baby teeth tend to set the path for adult teeth so it is best for your child to stop earlier. Most professionals consider thumb-sucking normal until age five, but the earlier your child stops, the better. The longer the habit is allowed to persist, the more difficult it will be for your child to break the habit and the more at risk she will be for developing complications.
Around age two children are usually able to understand that thumb-sucking is for babies. This suggestion alone is enough to get some children to stop!
How can I help my child stop thumb-sucking?
In order to break the habit, try to first understand why your child continues to suck her thumb. If it is for comfort, introduce other ways that she can soothe herself when she's feeling upset.
You might try giving her a special stuffed animal or blanket to snuggle during those times, or simply hold her hands. If your child tends to suck her thumb when she is bored, make sure she has lots of interesting activities to occupy her little hands.
If your child is old enough to understand, talk with them about how sucking their thumb may harm their beautiful teeth and make a plan together on how they will break the habit. They may enjoy wearing a new pair of gloves in their favorite color for a couple of days to help remind them that their thumb is off limits. In whatever way you attempt to help your child break the habit, be sure to be supportive and gentle. It can be difficult for small children to change their habits.
When your child just can't break the habit
If your child continues to struggle to give up sucking their thumb as they get older, your dentist or orthodontist may suggest that they use a tongue crib. The metal device bands to your child's upper teeth and forms a "crib" behind their front teeth.
This appliance not only discourages your child from sucking their thumb, it also retrains the tongue to rest in a proper posture. Patients who wear it are protected from tongue thrust and thereby protected from the accompanying speech, breathing and dental problems.
Whether you are able to help your child break their thumb-sucking habit at home or with the help of a supportive professional, know that you are helping your little one avoid health complications and live a healthier life.
Thumb-sucking may seem cute and innocent, but if allowed to continue past an appropriate age, your child will suffer for it. You and your child can work together to break the habit for good even if it takes some time and effort. Their smile is worth it!