Thumb Sucking and Your Child’s Teeth
Sucking on a thumb or finger is a completely normal habit that some babies develop even before they're born. It's a soothing and natural occurrence, and it also helps babies make contact with and explore their environment. If sucking habits go on much past the age of 3, however, it's possible that bite problems may arise.
In a normal bite, the upper teeth grow to overlap and touch the lower teeth. But it's possible that pressure from a thumb, finger or pacifier resting on the gums and teeth to interfere with normal tooth eruption and jaw growth. Some thumb-suckers develop an “open bite,” meaning the front teeth don't overlap when a child bites together. That's why sucking habits are definitely something to keep an eye on.
Real and lasting problems can become serious once the permanent teeth start to erupt. Once the permanent teeth develop an open bite, orthodontic treatment becomes certain and can be quite complicated. Treatments can include braces only, but extractions or even jaw surgery may be required to treat an open bite that lasts into adulthood.
Breaking the Habit
It's important to keep in mind that most children break thumb-sucking habits on their own between the ages of 2 and 4. So if you're trying to get your child to stop, the first thing to do is simply ignore it. Pacifiers will usually be given up more quickly than thumbs or fingers. If your child seems unable to stop when it's time, positive reinforcements tend to work better than negative (e.g., putting a bitter substance on the thumb). Here are some things you can try:
• Praise and Reward. Explain to your child why it's so important not to suck thumbs and think of a way to reward them for not doing it. Stickers or an activity they enjoy work well. Always offer gentle reminders rather than scold when you notice a thumb in your child's mouth, and praise them when they stop.
• Comfort and Distract. Children have different triggers for thumb sucking. Does your child tend to do it when stressed or bored? If so, some extra hugs might help, or an activity to keep those little hands busy.
• Get Creative. You know your child best. Maybe there's a method that would be particularly motivating to them. For example, you could tie the pacifier to a helium balloon and send it up to the Tooth Fairy. When she receives it, she can leave a special present under their pillow!
• Let Us Help. If your child sucks their thumb, fingers, or a pacifier, be sure to let us know. If necessary, we can make a special oral appliance called a habit appliance which physically prevents thumb sucking and can usually break the habit in a few months.
Though orthodontics can usually fix bite problems that result from sucking habits, it’s always best to avoid this expense if possible!