Thumbsucking. You’ve heard it’s good for your child and that you should encourage them to do it, but you’ve also been warned that it’s bad and could lead to the need for orthodontic treatment. Which one is it? The answer is, “both.” Let us explain.

Thumb-sucking is Natural
Because babies are born with the urge to suck– think breastfeeding – it’s not surprising that their thumbs eventually find their way into their mouths. For some babies, this starts well before their first days, as is evident by some adorable, perfectly timed sonogram pictures.

Thumb-sucking is OK – For a Season
Thumb-sucking has benefits. Babies need to learn how to comfort themselves in their early days, and sucking their thumbs, fingers or a pacifier usually does the trick. Studies have even proved that children who fall asleep with a pacifier have a reduced risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

A 2009 article in American Family Physician also mentions the analgesic effects of pacifiers. They’re recommended for pain relief in newborns, as well as for infants undergoing procedures such as immunizations and venipuncture. They’ve even been credited with shortening hospital stays for preterm infants.

Around age 2 to 4, most children will develop alternate coping mechanisms – such as speech – that will naturally take the place of thumb-sucking. However, some will not give up this habit willingly (this can be a sign of emotional turmoil), and prolonged thumb-sucking can have detrimental effects to your child’s oral health. But when should your child be encouraged to quit?

When to Call it Quits
Many believe thumb-sucking is safe until the child’s first permanent teeth erupt (around age 6), but deciding when thumb-sucking becomes detrimental to your child’s oral health involves more factors than the mere act of sucking and the presence of permanent teeth.

The intensity, tongue projection and frequency your child soothes himself with sucking can mean he may need to quit sooner to avoid wreaking havoc on his oral development.

When babies suck too hard or too often on a pacifier, it can alter their nasopharyngeal function, according to an RDH Magazine article.

Some oral bones, such as the upper palate (roof of the mouth), don’t fuse until age 17 and are therefore malleable. Some studies have concluded that extreme sucking force and prolonged or extreme tongue projection can alter the jaw’s shape and alignment well before permanent teeth erupt.

Signs that your child has an unhealthy thumb-sucking style include:

  • Callus development on the digit he sucks
  • Knowing he sucks his fingers, thumbs or pacifier for most of the day and night
  • Noticing that he tends to soothe himself with his thumb instead of seeking comfort from others

Thumb-sucking habits are yet another reason why it’s good to follow the American Association of Orthodontists recommendation of having your child evaluated by an orthodontist by age 7. At this age, your chil has a good mix of baby and adult teeth, and the bite is established. Please let us know if your child was – or still is – a thumb-sucker so we can look closely at his bite and determine whether interceptive measures might be beneficial. Frequently, no treatment is needed at this point. Instead, we monitor your child’s development and track changes in his alignment to help you determine when it’s time to wean your child from what may have developed into a habit.

Miami orthodontic appliances

Vertical crib. Photo courtesy of Habit Appliances.

What are Some Problems caused by Thumb-Sucking?

All of the following have been blamed on thumb-sucking:

  • “Buck” and misaligned teeth
  • Improperly developed speech
  • Malformed upper palate
  • Misaligned jaws
  • Teasing

Prolonged thumb-sucking is mainly the cause of these problems. While some of these issues can correct themselves when the child stops sucking his thumb, the longer the habit continues, the more likely it is that orthodontic treatment will be needed.

Which is Best: Thumb, Finger or Pacifier?
Sometimes the child chooses his soothing option on his own, but if a parent is able to intervene early and can get the child to prefer the use of a pacifier, this is the route we recommend. Why? Mainly because a pacifier is an object – it can be removed once it’s time for the child to quit. A thumb or finger is always accessible and makes it harder for children to quit using – especially those who rely heavily on it for comfort.

How do I Wean My Child from His Thumb or Pacifier?

Flat crib. Photo courtesy of Habit Appliances.

Flat crib. Photo courtesy of Habit Appliances.

  • Thumb or finger

It can be more difficult to wean a child from his thumb or finger, but many resources are available, as this is a common obstacle. Thumb/finger covers and bitter nail polishes eliminate satisfaction and serve as negative reinforcement that curbs the urge to suck.

  • Pacifiers

Parents can simply make the pacifier disappear or purposely damage it and show the child that it’s “broken” and must be thrown away. We recommend that once parents take the pacifier away, they don’t keep one for “emergencies.” Rewarding a tantrum by giving the pacifier back makes it exponentially more difficult to take it away a second time.

Sometimes habits are so firmly established, we may recommend an appliance to help your child break the habit. There is a variety of options available.

A vertical crib is an appliance that can be placed in the upper arch to restrain from excessive forward movement, as well as thumb-sucking.

A flat crib is another type of appliance that also is placed in the upper arch to inhibit thumb-sucking. The appliance sits in the roof of the mouth and takes away the soothing sensation of thumb-sucking because the thumb no longer can rest comfortably in the roof of the mouth.

Learn More
If you have any questions about whether your child’s thumb-sucking habit is healthy, call today for an appointment. We are happy to assess your child’s oral health and provide you with the support needed to keep it on the right track.

If your child is age 7, it’s time to schedule that first orthodontic evaluation. We will conduct a complete evaluation that includes photographs and digital X-rays so we can get him/her established in our monitoring program. Remember: the need for treatment is unlikely at this stage. But if a problem is identified during this appointment, we will offer treatment recommendations if it is determined that interceptive treatment now will prevent the need for more extensive treatment in the future.

We look forward to seeing you in our Miami orthodontics office soon!