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Health Team

Thumb sucking can cause long-term dental damage

Posted August 13, 2010 4:18 p.m. EDT
Updated August 13, 2010 6:23 p.m. EDT

Thumb sucking is the ultimate portable pacifier for babies, but dentists say that long-term thumb sucking can cause permanent damage to children's teeth.

Studies have found that 80 percent of babies suck their thumbs, according to dentists with Metamorphosis Orthodontists, which runs Britain's first thumb-sucking clinic.

"A little bit of soothing when they're really young is a good idea," said orthodontist Dr. Runa Mowla-Copley said.

Potential problems can emerge if the habit lasts long enough, she said.

"Prolonged thumb sucking after the age of four or five can have detrimental effects to the development of the face and jaws," Mowla-Copley said.

Rachel Steib, of London, England, said that thumb sucking caused both dental and social problems for her 9-year-old daughter Jessica.

"Her peers said, 'Why do you look like that? You look like a bunny rabbit,''' Steib said.

After the home remedies  to break thumb sucking failed, Steib brought her daughter to the Metamorphosis clinic. Jessica was fitted with a special retainer.

Orthodontists say the retainer is a last-resort method. It fits inside the child's mouth and prevents the child's thumb from reaching the roof of the mouth. The retainer usually stays in for about nine months.

The retainer is endorsed by the American Orthodontic Society and is used in several clinics across the United States.

Steib said the retainer not only helped fix her daughter's teeth but also broke her thumb-sucking habit.

"That's going to save Jessica and us years of orthodontic treatment," Steib said.

Home remedies to stop thumb sucking include coating the thumb with a bitter substance, a bandage or a sock. Adjustable plastic cylinders, or thumbguards, are also an option.