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Does thumb sucking damage your child’s teeth?

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thumb sucking

Most children stop sucking on thumbs and other objects between the ages of 2 and 4 years old. 

My son found his thumb in the womb. And I’m not gonna lie, as a mom-to-be, I stared proudly at the ultrasound as he sucked away, sure that this made him somehow more intelligent.

As an infant and toddler, thumb sucking was a tool he used to soothe himself and again, I was fine with it. If he could soothe himself, it was one less time that I had to wake up to crying baby in the middle of the night. But now, at age 4, I worry that it’s a habit that’s seemingly impossible to break. It starts innocently enough but then can have long-term repercussions.

According to the American Dental Association, “(t)humbsucking is a natural reflex for children. Sucking on thumbs, fingers, pacifiers or other objects may make babies feel secure and happy and help them learn about their world. Young children may also suck to soothe themselves and help them fall asleep.”

And eventually it turns into a habit that, according to experts, can cause damage to the alignment of the teeth at a certain age and the growth of the bones and jaw that support the teeth. It leaves parents like me worried and wondering how to stop it.

So, am I right to be concerned? For more information on thumb sucking, we spoke with Dr. Isabel Driggers, a board certified pediatric dentist at Coastal Kids Dental & Braces, about the habit and what parents can do to stop it. 

Q: Does thumb sucking damage teeth?

A: It does not damage the actual teeth, but can cause misalignment of the teeth, as well as affecting the growth of the jaw and bones that support the teeth. 

Q: How long can a child safely suck their thumb?

A: There is no specific age, however the earlier they stop, the less change will occur and the more likely that any change that occurred can be reversible. Intervention is less likely if the habit is broken by age 3.  

Dr. Isabel Driggers

Dr. Isabel Driggers is a board certified pediatric dentist at Coastal Kids Dental & Braces.

Q: At what age do children normally stop thumb sucking?

A: Usually by the time they start school. Most children stop sucking on thumbs and other objects between the ages of 2 and 4 years old. 

Q: Why do they suck their thumb?

A: It is a form of comfort and is used for soothing. This is very natural for babies and young children. 

Q: What specifically is the long-term damage of thumb sucking?

A: Misalignment of the teeth, which can almost always be corrected with braces when the child is older. If the misalignment is severe, problems with speech can also be a concern. Finally, because the thumb often carries germs and bacteria, frequent sickness can be a result of thumb sucking.

Q: How is damage from thumb sucking treated?

A: Typically with orthodontic treatment using appliances and sometimes braces. 

Q: Does a pacifier damage teeth?

A: All of the above applies to a pacifier as well. The only benefit to a pacifier is that it is easier to get rid of. Also good to note that what you may actually refer to when thinking of thumb sucking (is) digit sucking, since some kids actually suck on a different finger. It isn’t always a thumb.

Q: What should parents do if they have a long term thumb sucker?

A: They should remember that it starts off as a normal way for a child to soothe themselves, but it does become a habit and they will (most likely) want to do longer than they need to. Habits are hard to break, but positive reinforcement always works best when trying to help a child to stop sucking. At the end of the day, it is not life threatening and a child will continue to do it until they decide that they do want to quit.

At that point the parent can try gentle reminders, along with rewards/positive reinforcement. If they are still having trouble, there are paints and apparatuses that they can buy to help.  

(Your pediatric dentist can advise on best practices and even fun ways to attempt breaking the habit before changes in the teeth and jaw occur.) LCP