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The Effects of Thumb-Sucking on Teeth

The Effects of Thumb-Sucking on Teeth

Thumb-Sucking and Its Effects on Teeth

Thumb-sucking causes repetitive pressure on your child’s teeth, the roof of their mouth, and parts of their jawbone. This repetitive pressure means that thumb-sucking can cause long-term damage, especially as it occurs while your child’s mouth is still developing.

The intensity with which your child sucks their thumb or finger has a large influence over whether or not, and how much, they will damage their teeth. Passively holding the thumb in the mouth isn’t likely to have any negative impact. However, vigorous sucking can lead to problems with the alignment of their primary teeth (baby teeth). While most impacts on primary teeth will normally resolve once their adult teeth erupt, it is important that your child no longer sucks their thumb once their permanent teeth emerge, or they can cause permanent problems which include:

  • An overbite
  • Misshapen or incorrectly positioned jaw
  • Misaligned teeth
  • Speech impediments such as a lisp 
  • Narrowing the roof of their mouth causing over-sensitivity
  • Misalignment of their tongue

When Do Parents Need to Step In?

Most children stop sucking their thumbs of their own accord. This often happens around the age of 6-7 months, or between the ages of 2-4 years. Some children, however, continue sucking their thumbs beyond this age, especially during stressful situations, in which case it is advisable to take steps to break the habit to avoid permanently damaging their teeth and mouths. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends treating repetitive thumb-sucking in children over the age of five. However, excessive, vigorous thumb-sucking should be discouraged at any age.

How to Discourage Thumb-Sucking 

Don’t be tempted to give your child a pacifier to suck in place of their thumb. The sucking action on these can cause the same oral health problems as thumb-sucking.

Remember that, psychologically, thumb-sucking is a comforting behavior to your child. Taking a heavy-handed approach is likely to demoralize them and make the entire experience stressful, which is counterproductive. Instead, talk to your child about the habit, and give them input into the steps to kick it.

Recognize why your child is sucking their thumb. If your child is responding to stress, identify what is causing it, and tackle that root cause. Not only will this improve your child’s dental health, but their mental health will benefit too. Provide comfort and support in these scenarios. Even if thumb-sucking is an absent-minded impulse, use gentle reminders rather than criticism or ridicule to encourage them to break the habit.

However, some children suck their thumbs to gain attention. If you think this is what underlies the behavior in your child, the best approach can be to simply ignore it. This is always worth trying as an alternative strategy if other approaches aren’t getting results.

Strategies you can try to stop your child from sucking their thumb include:

Positive Reinforcement

When encouraging a child to stop sucking their thumb, use positive reinforcement, such as rewards for not sucking their thumb for achievable periods of time (such as during mealtimes). Praise them for any progress they make.

A Thumb Shield

A thumb shield is a plastic or fabric cover that acts as a reminder for your child not to suck their thumbs, particularly at times when they are more likely to do so.

Bitter Medication

Your dentist can prescribe bitter medications to apply to thumb or finger nails to discourage thumb-sucking (as well as nail biting.)

Orthodontic Devices

An orthodontic device can be removable or non-removable, and prevents your child from sucking their thumb. They do however, need to be specially fitted by an orthodontist.

When to Involve Your Kid’s Dentist

Our children’s dentists are always happy to help. If you’re concerned about your child’s oral health in any way, we’d encourage you to ask our team. We especially encourage parents to bring their children in to see us if you notice any of the following:

  • Front teeth jutting out
  • Problems with their bite
  • If you’d like to try a nail medication

If there is any way you think we can help perfect your kid’s smile, schedule an appointment with our Green Bay family dentists or give us a call at (920) 437-3376.

Dr. Adam Koch, D.D.S.

About the Author

Dr. Adam Koch, D.D.S.

Dr. Adam Koch is proud to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as a third-generation family dentist in Green Bay. He received his undergraduate from the University of Northern Iowa and earned his board certification and Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Creighton University School of Dentistry. Dr. Koch is also a member of the advisory board for the NWTC Dental Hygiene Program. View Dr. Koch full bio>>

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