How Thumb-Sucking Can Harm Your Child's Smile

How Thumb-Sucking Can Harm Your Child's Smile
Posted on 08/06/2018
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When our Stillwater and Woodbury area babies and even toddlers are found sucking their thumbs, the act is often met with comments about how cute they are. And it is cute!

While some amount of thumb-sucking is a normal reflex and not harmful at all, children who continuously suck their thumbs for extended periods of time a can cause orthodontic problems later in life.

Why Do Kids Suck Their Thumbs?

Before they leave the womb, some babies begin thumb-sucking as a comforting suckling reflex. Out into the “real world,” the act of thumb-sucking has been shown to release endorphins and acts as a self-soothing action. Kids often continue that reflex as a way to find comfort, go to sleep, or deal with stress. Toddlers usually grow out of thumb-sucking or pacifier use by finding a replacement object to provide security, such as a favorite blanket, stuffed toy or doll. When thumb-sucking is consistent and continues too long, it can create concerning dental problems that can affect the smile, the bite, and speech.

Ways Thumb-Sucking Can Harm A Smile

The American Dental Association reports that most children will stop sucking their thumbs on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. For others, it can be a habit that is very difficult to stop on their own. Your child’s adult teeth will usually begin to emerge between 5 and 7-years-old, because of this it’s generally recommended that any habit be stopped before age 5. Thumb-sucking can:

  • Cause teeth to grow outwards from their thumb continually pushing them forward
  • Cause difficulty in speaking as they are unable to form sounds and words properly with their thumb in their mouths or because tooth positions make speech difficult
  • Change a child’s developing bite. Usually, this is seen as an “ open bite” or lack of overlap between the upper and lower front teeth
  • Make it difficult to chew and eat
  • Negatively affect the way the palate (roof of the mouth) and jaws develop and grow.
  • Note: extended use of a pacifier can have the same negative effects

Why And How To Stop Thumb-Sucking 

While children’s continued thumb habits can create tooth problems that follow them into adulthood, it also provides a coping mechanism that many toddlers rely on. That’s why our staff at Henseler & Kocian Orthodontics recommends efforts to end oral habits be implemented gradually and gently. Here are some tips for stopping:

  • Determine when your child resorts to thumb-sucking (time of day? naptime?) and offer distractions or alternatives during that time.
  • Use older siblings or relatives as models of young people who don’t need to suck their thumb anymore.
  • For older toddlers, speak honestly to them about their teeth and the advantages of stopping the habit- improved smile, bite and speech.
  • Set up a reward system for your child that might include a unique activity, a trip to a museum or movie.
  • If your child uses thumb-sucking to calm anxieties, help them find other ways to deal with stress.

Be careful not to yank their thumb out of their mouth as that may be upsetting to them at a time they are attempting to find comfort. If your child is speaking with their thumb in their mouth, consider gently pulling their thumb out and remind them that they can talk more clearly without something in their mouth. Above all, stay positive during the process. Your child is bound to slip back into their old habit during attempts to stop. Just remember to be consistent and praise progress.

Using Palatal Expanders To Reverse Thumb-Sucking Effects

For children whose oral health has been negatively affected by thumb-sucking, your Woodbury and Stillwater area kids orthodontist has treatment options that can not only help stop the habit but reverse the damage. While your child may be a candidate for braces or Invisalign clear aligners, the problems may be extensive enough that your child would benefit from a palatal expander. This orthodontic appliance is affixed to the roof of your mouth and is used to establish proper width and shape of the upper jaw to make room for adult teeth to erupt as straight as possible.

Consult Henseler Orthodontics About Your Thumb-Sucking Child

If you are concerned about the effects that a habit may be having on your child, consider seeing an orthodontist. Dr. Henseler and Dr. Kocian are highly-qualified orthodontists trained in evaluating, diagnosing and providing treatment for many common orthodontic problems. Call and visit our offices in Stillwater at 651-439-8909 or in Woodbury at 651-739-1555 to set up a complimentary evaluation.