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Effects of Thumb Sucking

Effects of Thumb Sucking on Children’s Teeth: What Parents Need to Know

Thumb sucking is a normal and developmentally-appropriate tool that infants use to soothe themselves and interact with the environment around them. But when the habit continues into toddlerhood, and beyond, the effects of thumb sucking can start to play out in some negative ways, particularly in terms of dental health. 

As family dentists, we see thumb sucking in children aged anywhere from 0 to 10. We also see the consequences of thumb sucking as children get older and the detrimental effects it can have on bite alignment, jaw shape, and oral sensitivity. 

With that in mind, here’s what parents need to know about long-term thumb sucking, including how to help their child break the habit.

Chronic Thumb in Mouth? Here are the Possible Long-Term Effects

The effects of thumb sucking can vary based on age and how vigorous the sucking motion is. But just as there is an oral health risk with consuming too much sugar, all children face some potential dental issues if they actively suck their thumbs for a prolonged period of time. This makes it essential that you monitor how long your child spends with their thumb in their mouth and take steps to eliminate the habit if it’s going on for too long. 

Possible consequences of thumb sucking include:

  • Misalignment of teeth – Chronic thumb sucking can result in teeth misalignment, including an overbite, crossbite, or open bite. 
  • Changes in jaw structure – Thumb sucking produces continuous pressure in the mouth, which over time, can alter the shape of the jaw and cause it to become wider or more narrow. 
  • Cavities – Children who suck their thumb are at a higher risk of cavities since they regularly introduce bacteria into their mouth from their hands. 
  • Gum inflammation – Prolonged thumb sucking can lead to gum irritation and inflammation and may even result in gum disease. 
  • Speech impediments – Some children who suck their thumb eventually experience speech problems as a result, such as a lisp or difficulty speaking clearly. 

How to Stop Thumb Sucking

If you’re worried about the possible effects on your child’s teeth from thumb sucking, it may be time to help them eliminate the habit for good. Do keep in mind, however, that long-term thumb sucking isn’t generally a problem in a child’s younger years, and most will stop on their own between the ages of two and four. If your child is older than that, though, and still chronically sucking their thumb, intervention may be required. 

Breaking a thumb-sucking habit can be tricky, but it is possible with time and persistence. Follow these tips for success, and make sure to talk to your child’s dentist if you’re concerned that your child is experiencing dental issues as a result of thumb sucking. 

  • Offer alternatives – Thumb sucking is often used as a method for self-soothing, so try to replace it by providing an alternative soothing device such as a stuffed animal or blanket or even a kid-safe chew toy. 
  • Reward progress – Use rewards like stickers and praise to acknowledge and celebrate your child every time they go without sucking their thumb for a certain amount of time. 
  • Limit thumb sucking time – Instead of going cold turkey, set aside specific times of the day when your child is allowed to suck their thumb, such as at bedtime. 
  • When in doubt, distract – Distractions can go a long way toward breaking a thumb-sucking habit, so if your child can’t seem to keep their thumb out of their mouth, give them something to do to take their mind off of it, such as a craft or game. 

Ultimately, children are more likely to quit sucking their thumb if they feel supported and encouraged. Be patient, positive, and consistent in helping your child break the habit and adapt and move on from any setbacks that they have. They’ll get there, it may just take some time. 

Protect Your Child’s Teeth from Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking can be incredibly detrimental to a child’s teeth, gums, and jaw growth and shape, but it doesn’t have to be. By addressing the habit at a proper age, you can help protect your child’s mouth and nip the problem in the bud before it becomes more serious. Not sure you can do it alone? Our own Dr. Zahdan is here to help. Please contact us today to schedule an appointment at our Orland Park, IL office and learn more about our dental services for kids.

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