thumb-sucking-teethDoes your child suck his or her thumb? In babies and young children, thumb-sucking is common and generally nothing to worry about. Most children will naturally break the habit on their own between 2 and 4 years old. But if they are still sucking their thumbs pretty intensely at 5 or 6 years old, it may lead to problems with their teeth and overall oral health.

Fortunately, there are procedures and thumb-sucking appliances that treat or prevent orthodontic issues in children who have developed the habit. If you are concerned your child may be causing damage with his or her thumb-sucking, take a moment to learn about why babies suck their thumbs in the first place, when it’s really a problem, and how to treat it by reading the information below.

Why Many Young Children Suck Their Thumbs

thumb-suckingChildren are born with the natural urge to suck their thumb or fingers, and some even start doing it while in their mother’s womb. This urge usually carries into the first few years of life, as it is a way a small child calms and soothes himself. It can be somewhat therapeutic, often making it a reflex action in times of stress or discomfort. Once a baby understands thumb-sucking as a way to relax and feel comforted when tired, hungry, bored or restless, it is no surprise it can become a habit for toddlers. For most kids, this is just a part of growing and developing. Those continue to suck their thumb into school age, however, may experience negative side effects.

When Is Thumb-Sucking a Problem?

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Although it is not a hard and fast rule, if your child is still sucking his or her thumb after age 5, it might become a problem. Aside from potentially getting teased at school for the baby-like habit, children who suck their thumbs risk getting speech, health,
and orthodontic issues:

  • Speech problems: Sucking a thumb can lead to a lisp or inability to pronounce Ts and Ds correctly when speaking, which may require speech therapy in the future.
  • Germs: Children usually don’t wash their hands frequently, which means there are plenty of germs on their fingers when they put them in their mouth. Greater and more consistent exposure to germs may lead a child to get sick more often. Chronic thumb-sucking may also cause infections and calluses on the skin due to the germs in the mouth.
  • Orthodontic issues: Frequent and intense thumb-sucking can cause misalignment of the teeth and improper development of the jaw, making it uncomfortable to bite the top and bottom teeth together and difficult to chew.

The orthodontic problems may require treatment once they start to develop, so be especially aware of these.

Orthodontic Issues Associated with Thumb-Sucking

stop-thumb-suckingChildren who passively hold their thumbs in their mouth will likely not develop as serious of orthodontic issues as those who aggressively suck. Consistent, intense and long-lasting sucking as an older toddler is usually the key factor for developing oral problems. The two most common orthodontic issues created by thumb-sucking are improper teeth alignment and irregular mouth development.

Improper Teeth Alignment

Thumb-sucking can result in malocclusion, or improper alignment of teeth when biting down. Most commonly, this misalignment is seen in two ways: an anterior open bite and a posterior crossbite. An anterior open bite means that the upper and lower front teeth do not touch each other when you bite down. A posterior crossbite means that the upper jaw is too narrow for the lower jaw, resulting in the upper teeth not fitting properly with the lower teeth. Usually, if thumb-sucking is discontinued early, the anterior open bite will correct itself. The posterior crossbite, on the other hand, will not self-correct and will inevitably require orthodontic treatment, such as a palatal expander and braces.

Irregular Mouth Growth and Development

When a child continues to suck his or her thumb past preschool age, not only are the teeth affected, but also the entire mouth and jaw. Many times, when the teeth are misaligned, the jaw may also not properly fit together. If this happens, the child may have trouble chewing normally, feel discomfort in the lower cheeks, and breathe out of the mouth through open lips.

On the inside of the mouth, the roof and tongue can be adversely affected by thumb-sucking as well. In its natural position, the tongue should rest at the top of your mouth when your teeth bite together. Children who have developed issues due to having a finger in the way of the mouth closing normally will often place their tongue down and forward when resting. This can alter normal function of the tongue when speaking (creating a lisp) or eating. At the same time, since the thumb is being pressed against the roof of the mouth, a child’s palate may develop too high and narrow, which furthers complications with alignment.

Orthodontic Prevention and Treatment

sucking-thumbIf your child is already experiencing some of these issues, there are early orthodontic treatment options available to correct them. If your preschool-aged child sucks his or her thumb and it seems to be becoming an intense habit, you can step in right now and start breaking it. Tell children to try to stop, and as they start sucking their thumb less, provide positive reinforcement. Give praise, prizes or other rewards that encourage them to keep trying. At night or during instances that generally incite thumb-sucking, you may wrap their thumb with a bandage or cover their hands with a sock to deter them from putting any fingers near their mouth.

There are many other ways to help your child stop thumb-sucking, including using an early orthodontic appliance. When a child is over the age of 6 and still sucking on his or her thumb frequently and intensely, an orthodontist can put a special device into the child’s mouth that removes the pleasure of the habit. These thumb-sucking appliances are attached to the upper teeth and provide slight pressure to the backs of the front teeth or block the thumb when a child attempts to insert it, thereby associating discomfort with putting fingers in the mouth.

While most kids stop sucking their thumbs on their own as they get older, be on the lookout for high frequency, intensity and duration after 4 years old. If your child does not break the habit before damage is done, future orthodontic work will be necessary to fix the misalignment and improper development. That is why it is best to practice prevention – even if it takes the use of thumb-sucking appliances now to prevent major corrections later.

Do you have additional questions about how thumb-sucking might be impacting your child’s oral health? Dunn Orthodontics has three convenient Valley locations in Litchfield Park, Phoenix, and Arcadia. We have extensive experience in early orthodontic treatments and offer complimentary consultations for new patients. You can also reach us by telephone at 602-864-0004.

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