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Is Your Child’s Thumb-Sucking Harming Their Dental Development?

If there is one thing parents have in common, it’s wanting their children to grow up healthy without incurring habits that may impact their proper development. So, it is understandable that you might be worried about your child’s thumb-sucking habit.

Thumb sucking is a quite common and normal habit that some babies can develop even in the womb. It is a soothing and reflexive behaviour that helps babies and infants sleep, make contact with and explore their environment. Some children even continue thumb-sucking up until the age of 4, often utilising it as a mechanism for self-soothing and coping with stressful situations. 

However, thumb sucking habits that go on beyond the age of 4 can have some negative effects on a child’s dental development and in this article, we shall be taking a look at how thumb sucking affects dental health.

Does Thumb-Sucking Damage Teeth?

Not all thumb-sucking habits cause damage to the teeth. For example, when a child passively keeps their thumb in the mouth, there is typically no damage done. However, when the thumb sucking is active with a lot of movement, primary or baby teeth can get damaged. Also, allowing a vigorous thumb sucking habit to continue well past the age of 4 can sometimes affect jaw or mouth shape and lead to the misalignment of a child’s permanent teeth. Thumb sucking can also expose a child to dirt, viruses and bacteria.

Effects of Thumb Sucking on Dental Health

Thumb sucking can affect your child’s dental development by;

Causing Malocclusion

When thumb sucking is allowed to go on for too long, malocclusion problems (misalignment of upper and lower teeth) may develop. The most common type of malocclusion that develops from thumb sucking is an open bite which is when the front upper and lower teeth do not reach each other, even when the mouth is closed. 

Excessive thumb sucking can also lead to an overbite which is when your child’s front teeth exaggeratedly overlaps the bottom ones. This often impacts the function of their front teeth. 

Essentially, prolonged thumb sucking leads to incorrect alignments of the jaw and teeth which makes it difficult for your child to bite and chew foods. 

Impacting Jaw and Facial Development

As children grow from infancy to adolescence, their jaw and face will continue to make notable changes. The development of this orofacial complex (which consists of the muscles of the jaw, tongue, lips, larynx, and soft palate), including the teeth and face can be severely impacted by constant thumb sucking. This is because, the reoccurring pressure from the sucking motion causes the child’s teeth to shift in an unusual direction and affect their overall facial structure.

Impairing Speech Development

The overbite or open bite that develops from a child’s prolonged thumb-sucking habit can also affect their speech. This is because the tongue will most likely push forward through the space in the teeth whenever they try to speak. This poor tongue control often results in a child developing a lisp or having difficulties pronouncing L, Z, S and R sounds.

Should you Stop Your Child’s Thumb Sucking Habit?

The simple answer is Yes. You should discourage your child from sucking their thumb as they age. Some of the ways you can do this include;

RemindersStart by offering your child gentle reminders as to why thumb sucking is bad for them. Avoid getting aggressive or using punishment as it may worsen the thumb sucking habit.

Reward System– You can create a system of reward where your child gets a toy or treat for not sucking their thumb for a specific amount of time.

Orthodontic DevicesYou can also try orthodontic devices used for disrupting a child’s ability to thumb suck. These devices can be removable and non-removable. Do make sure to consult with a pediatric orthodontist about which type will be best for your child.

Thumb Shields These are thumb guards made from fabric or soft plastic that you put around your child’s thumb to remind them not to thumb suck. They are available without a prescription and you can wear them around your child’s thumb at all times (or during the times when they are most likely to thumb suck). 

If your child sucks their thumb while sleeping at night, you can cover their thumb with a mitten or a glove.

Thumb Sucking Vs. Pacifiers

It is important that you do not use a pacifier as a replacement for your child’s thumb sucking habit. Like thumb sucking, a pacifier habit also creates the potential for tooth damage. They are also germ magnets. The only upside to using them is that you can take them away as a strategy to break your child’s habit.

Conclusion 

Thumb sucking is a completely natural and reflexive behaviour that babies develop from (or before) birth. However if thumb sucking doesn’t stop after the age of 2-3, it becomes a cause for concern. Vigorous and prolonged thumb sucking has the potential to cause damage to the teeth and mouth, so it is important that you help your child break the habit.

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