Thumb Sucking and Your Child’s Teeth

Thumb sucking

If you look through the windows of your kid’s school or daycare, you’re bound to see a few kids sucking on their thumbs. This is a common habit in infants and very young children, and one that usually goes away before the child enters elementary school.

However, some children have a more difficult time breaking this habit. About one in five children continue to suck their thumbs after their fifth birthday. This can spell big problems for their oral development, as thumb sucking can impact the way permanent teeth grow in the mouth.

So, what do you do if your child is a thumb sucker? The answer will vary from kid to kid (of course), but there are a few things you can do to help your kid develop a healthy smile as they grow up.

Before you do that, however, it is important to understand why kids suck their thumbs and what this habit does to their teeth.

Why Do Kids Suck Their Thumbs?

If your child sucks his or her thumb, the first thing you should do is take a deep breath. This particular baby habit gets a bad rep, as some people think it’s associated with stress or trauma. However, that’s not the case!

If your kid sucks his or her thumb, don’t worry; your kid isn’t always overwhelmed, and you’re not a bad parent.

According to the ADA, thumb sucking is a normal reflex that many babies develop while in the womb. It is a self-soothing technique they use to feel more relaxed as they grow in your belly. By the time they’re born it is simply a force of habit.

In infancy and toddlerhood, thumb sucking or using pacifiers is completely normal (even encouraged). But if your child doesn’t stop by the time his baby teeth become loose, you might need to help him outgrow this habit.

How Does Thumb Sucking Affect Teeth?

Children who suck their thumbs past age five can develop a variety of dental issues as they get permanent teeth. Sucking can affect the way the roof of the mouth is shaped. It can also push teeth forward while they are growing in.

These changes can result in problems like overbite, misaligned teeth, and changes to the shape of the jaw. Many of these issues can be fixed with braces later in life. However, others (jaw-related issues in particular) can contribute to greater problems; thumb sucking late in childhood can lead to speech development issues like lisps.

What Can I Do?

The degree to which thumb-sucking affects a child’s teeth will depend on how much and how often the child sucks his thumb. Children who passively hold their thumbs in their mouths see a lesser impact than those who actively suck on their thumbs, and children who do so only occasionally have fewer issues than those who do it constantly.

Nonetheless, if your child is sucking their thumb past the age of five, you might want to take steps to change their behavior.

The ADA recommends using positive reinforcement to keep your child from sucking his or her thumb. Praise them when they don’t suck. Let them track their progress with a sticker chart or other reward system. Over time, they will find new ways to self-soothe and won’t need to suck their thumbs anymore.

Of course, some cases may require a little more work than others. If your child is having a particularly tough time letting go of thumb sucking, talk to their dentist. They may be able to offer additional encouragement or even fit your child with an orthodontic device that will prevent dental damage.

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