How thumb sucking can affect your teeth

It is a fact of life that many infants and toddlers suck their thumbs.  It is also a fact of life that many parents fret about it.  Parents worry about whether it is harmful to the teeth, whether it can cause lasting damage, and whether they will be able to break their children of the habit.  It is important to recognize that thumb sucking is a normal behavior; sucking is a reflex for children and the thumb (or a finger) is convenient to suck on because it is always available.

However, if thumb sucking continues for too long, it can cause damage.  The American Dental Association (ADA) notes that sucking the thumb can lead to damage with the permanent teeth, specifically with the way the mouth grows and the way the teeth are aligned.  The ADA notes that intensity is a critical factor, which “determines whether or not dental problems may result.”  In fact, “If children rest their thumbs passively in their mouths, they are less likely to have difficulty than those who vigorously suck their thumbs.”  Noting that thumb sucking often occurs in moments of stress for the child, the ADA notes that if parents work with children to address the reason for the stress, the child may not feel the urge to turn to thumb sucking for comfort.

Sometimes orthodontic care is required to address the results of thumb sucking.  In some cases, the child “may also develop speech problems, including mispronouncing Ts and Ds, lisping, and thrusting out the tongue when talking.”

Many parents wonder exactly when these concerns come into play.  In other words, is there an age at which thumb sucking becomes very problematic?  Mary Hayes, DDS, is a pediatric dentist in Chicago and a diplomate and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.  Dr. Hayes explains that conventional wisdom at one time was that “as long as a child stopped sucking by the time they developed their permanent teeth there would be minimal impact on the mouth and jaw.”  However, with new research, that thinking has changed: “Now, research shows that thumb or finger sucking can have an impact even at a younger age – as young as 2 to 4 years old,” Dr. Hayes explains.

What if the parents want to wean the child from thumb sucking?  There are several tactics that can be very useful for parents who are working toward this goal with their children.  First, it is important for parents to help their children find other ways to soothe themselves.  This can be as simple as snuggling with a parent or holding onto a blanket or stuffed animal for comfort.  If the child is verbal, the parent can work with the child on finding ways to verbalize the problem and they can work together on finding ways to resolve it.

When parents are trying to help children stop sucking their thumbs, it is important for the parents to remember that this can be a tough habit to break.  When children soothe themselves this way, they associate sucking the thumb with instant comfort.  Parents who are patient and understanding may find that the process goes more smoothly than parents who are abrupt and expect the child to stop immediately.  In other words, parents can help the child work on this over time rather than simply giving the child a command to stop, then scolding the child every time the thumb enters the mouth.

If you’re concerned about your child or would like to discuss this topic further with Dr. Moore, please feel free to call or contact us.