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Facts and myths about the effects of thumb sucking

Posted March 7

Many children actually stop sucking on thumbs or pacifiers without much parental involvement before it causes problems.

This story was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Dental Society.

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex for babies. In fact, with the help of ultrasound technology, many parents-to-be have seen their babies in the womb, sucking on a thumb or finger.

As cute as that looks on a black-and-white screen, parents tend to worry about the habit once babies are born.

Should they allow babies to suck their thumbs? Should parents encourage using pacifiers instead? How long could the habit last before it becomes bad for teeth?

The good news is sucking on thumbs or pacifiers helps calm babies or toddlers, even aids them in falling asleep and they are unlikely to cause long-term harm.

It is not necessary to try to break babies or young children of the habit. Many children actually stop without much parental involvement before it causes problems.

Problems associated with lengthy thumb sucking include changes in "the proper growth of the mouth and the alignment of teeth, and in the roof of the mouth," according to the American Dental Association.

When teeth become misaligned, they may also protrude and create an overbite.

"Changes in teeth alignment can occur based on the intensity, duration and frequency of habits," said Dr. Skip Tyson, a pediatric dentist in Wilmington, N.C. "One of the more common conditions that can occur as a result of thumb sucking or pacifier use is an open bite, where the front teeth do not come together. Posterior cross bites, where the posterior teeth do not come together properly due to the narrowing of the upper teeth, can also occur."

These potential worries don't mean, however, thumb suckers or pacifier users will automatically need braces somewhere down the line.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says to consider these concerns around ages two to four if the child "sucks strongly" on a thumb or pacifier, as opposed to just letting it rest in her or his mouth.

It is important that parents and caregivers do the best they can to stop their child from sucking on fingers, thumbs and pacifiers as soon as they can.

"We tell our patients who are parents that the sucking reflex is natural until their child is one or two," Tyson said. "After two years of age, it is more of a habit than a reflex. We encourage our patients to try and stop all sucking behaviors around two to three years of age if possible."

While pacifiers and thumbs are about equal when it comes to both soothing children and causing problems with prolonged use, parents may think pacifiers are a better option because their use is "an easier habit to break," the ADA says. After all, parents can take away pacifiers but not thumbs or fingers.

If sucking continues to an age when damage could be a possibility, peer pressure often will stop the practice. Children who start attending school will likely not want to stand out from peers who don't suck their thumbs. If that doesn’t stop the practice, parents and dental professionals can take steps to help.

The ADA shares a few recommendations:

  • Praise a child for not sucking, instead of reprimanding for doing it.
  • Because sucking can result from feeling insecure, address the "cause of the anxiety and comfort the child."
  • Provide rewards when a child avoids sucking.
  • Ask a dentist to help during a regular checkup or special visit by encouraging the child and explaining what may happen to the teeth if the child's habit continues.

Finally, use reminders like putting a bandage on the thumb or finger, or a sock over the hand.

"Taking babies and children for regular dental checkups and preventive care can help parents ensure they are doing what's best for their children's long-term oral hygiene, whether sucking continues past infancy or not," Tyson said.

This story was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Dental Society.

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