Thumb Sucking: When is it a Problem?

Is thumb sucking bad for your child’s teeth? There are a lot of myths surrounding this habit, but what is the truth?

In general, it’s totally normal and healthy for infants to suck their thumbs (or fingers, or pacifiers, or toys). This is one way they learn to self-soothe. But if thumb-sucking continues beyond the age of 5 (when permanent teeth begin to come in), dental problems may begin to occur.

Sucking on the thumb at this stage can cause the teeth to be pushed out of alignment, especially if your child sucks with great frequency and intensity. This can lead to an overbite, and to difficulty with speech and pronunciation. In extreme cases, the upper and lower jaws may even become misaligned and cause malformation of the roof of the mouth.

It’s important not to punish or scold a child for sucking his or her thumb. The child has learned to associate this habit with comfort and security, and negative reinforcement may only make the child more attached to this security mechanism.

Instead, give praise and reward when you see the child not sucking his or her thumb. Encourage the child to go longer and longer durations without sucking, and reward for achieving those goals. Young children will require shorter durations between rewards.

For older children who are more capable of expressing their thoughts and emotions, parents should try to determine why the child feels the need to suck his or her thumb. Discuss what is causing stress in your child’s life and either correct the situation, eliminating the stressor, or find other, healthier ways to deal with it. When the child wants to stop, covering the thumb or finger with a bandage can be a helpful reminder throughout the day.

And if nothing else works, you can speak to Dr. Jacobs about dental appliances available to curb sucking. These appliances are safe and temporary measures to assist a child who has not had success quitting this habit alone. The appliance is cemented to the upper teeth and makes thumb-sucking more difficult and less comforting.

In the end, the decision to stop sucking the thumb must be the child’s. The parent’s job is to encourage the child and offer positive reinforcement for meeting goals.

You can always ask your dental staff at Jacobs Pediatric Dentistry for help in solving these types of problems. We’re a team, working together to give your child a bright, healthy smile!