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Thumb Sucking and Dental Health

Thumb sucking is a normal and natural part of infant and child development. Many parents worry about their children sucking their thumbs (or using a pacifier), but unless the habit continues past the age of five, there’s really no cause for concern from a dental health perspective.

Why do infants and children suck their thumbs?

Thumb sucking is comforting and calming. In fact, most babies probably practiced this habit while they were still in the womb, before perfecting it as an infant. The habit then often continues into early childhood, and the thumb becomes something to turn to when your child is tired, scared, bored, sick, or trying to adjust to challenges such as starting daycare or preschool for the first time or enduring long car rides. Children may also use their thumbs to fall asleep at bedtime and to lull themselves back to sleep if they wake in the middle of the night.

Which is better for dental health — thumbs or pacifiers?

It really depends on whom you ask! Children tend to prefer one over the other, although some parents prefer their children use one instead of the other as well. Pacifiers are often seen as an easier habit to break than thumb sucking, as they can be thrown away. Thumbs, on the other hand, stay attached! This can make thumb sucking a habit that’s harder to give up, as it’s always present. However, some parents don’t like the artificiality of pacifiers and prefer their children soothe themselves more naturally with a thumb or fingers instead. It’s definitely a matter of personal preference. From a dental health perspective, though, neither one is harmful to a child’s oral health, unless the habit continues past the age of five. How does thumb sucking or use of a pacifer after age five interfere with oral development?

Depending on the frequency, intensity, and duration of the sucking, the teeth can be pushed out of alignment, causing an overbite. The child may also have difficulty with the correct pronunciation of words. Additionally, the upper and lower jaws can become misaligned and the roof of the mouth might become malformed. Should I help my child stop sucking his or her thumb or using a pacifier?

This is again something a parent must decide for themselves. As long as the habit doesn’t continue when permanent teeth are coming in, it’s likely not going to be an issue for their child’s dental development. In reality, a child must make the decision on their own to stop sucking their thumb or using a pacifier before the habit can be broken. To help toward this goal, positive reinforcement is a good place to start. Because sucking is a security mechanism, negative reinforcement, such as scolding or other punishments, are not effective and can drive kids back to the “bad” habit. Instead, give praise or rewards for time successfully avoiding the behavior. Gradually increase the time needed without sucking to achieve the reward. It can also help to take the thumb or pacifier out of the mouth after the child falls asleep.

To help older children break the habit, parents should try to determine why their child is doing it and make changes to help them with whatever stressors seem to trigger the sucking. If this doesn’t work, there are dental appliances a child can wear in the mouth to prevent thumb sucking.

If you have concerns about your child’s oral development due to a thumb sucking or pacifier habit past the age of five, give our Ann Arbor dental practice a call today at 734-677-2156 and we will be happy to answer any questions you have, or to schedule an appointment for a consultation.


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