The Dental Effects of Thumb-Sucking

Recently, my spouse and I had a challenging debate about our three-year-old son’s thumb-sucking habit.  On one side, he uses this common, often impulsive behavior to self-soothe in stressful situations or when he’s tired.  On the flip-side of the coin, we’re fearful that he is doing lasting damage to his teeth and jaw.  I’ve heard varying opinions on behalf of both sides.  I tend to agree more with the argument that claims, “He’ll grow out of it! He won’t be sucking his thumb when he’s 15! His sense of security is more important.” My significant other, however, feels that he needs to stop immediately, as he can already see that this habit is causing his front teeth to protrude.  In order to do what’s best for our child’s mouth and to settle the debate, once and for all, I decided to do a little research and find out what the experts say.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), thumb-sucking is a completely natural reflex for many children.  As infants, sucking helps make many babies happy and secure, whether they’re using their thumb, a different finger, a pacifier, or any other appropriate item.  But as they age, and their permanent teeth get ready to erupt, thumb-sucking can cause some serious problems.  The severity of the issues often corresponds with the intensity of the sucking, with those who vigorously suck their thumbs becoming more likely to have more challenging problems.  If thumb sucking does not stop by the time permanent teeth are ready to come in (usually between the ages of 6 and 8), proper growth of the mouth and alignment of the teeth will likely be effected.  Using a pacifier can have the same results; however breaking that habit can often be easier.

The ADA claims that children typically stop sucking between the ages of two and four, which would mean most aren’t negatively affecting their permanent teeth yet.  My son, however, isn’t showing any signs of stopping, and I’m sure he’s not the only one who has a tough time kicking the habit.  If you’re trying to get your little one to stop sucking, the ADA recommends the following steps:

  • Because kids often suck their thumbs when feeling insecure or when seeking comfort, try to eliminate the cause of anxiety and provide comfort with other means.
  • Praise children when they do not suck, as opposed to scolding them for when they do.
  • If the child is older, encourage them to take an active role in this process.  Get them involved in choosing the best method of stopping.
  • Have your dentist talk to your child about why they need to stop.  Sometimes, having another adult support your efforts at home is helpful.
  • When all else fails, there are physical means of keeping children from sucking.  Using a bandage or thumb-guard can help, or your dentist can prescribe a bitter medication or mouth appliance to help break the habit.

As much as I’d love to allow my child to continue sucking his thumb for security, I realize that in the long run, the problems that may arise due to this habit could be far worse than needing to find an alternative source of comfort.

Written by Mark Paulsort

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