For babies and young children, thumbsucking is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s considered a healthy and natural reflex that gives infants a sense of comfort and security. However, once your child’s permanent teeth begin to come in, thumbsucking can cause serious problems with the proper development of the mouth and the alignment of the teeth. Knowing when and how to stop thumbsucking is key to preventing long-term damage.
When Thumbsucking Becomes a Problem
Many children will stop thumbsucking on their own, usually when they are either six or seven months old or between ages two and four. But if the thumbsucking persists, experts recommend taking steps to curb the behavior before the child’s permanent teeth begin to come in—which typically happens around age six. It’s important to note that children who are passively resting their thumbs in their mouths are less likely to develop dental problems than those who vigorously suck their thumbs. If you’re unsure which category your child falls into, listen for a popping noise when your child pulls their thumb from their mouth. This sound is a sign of an aggressive thumb-sucker.
Side Effects of Thumbsucking
Once permanent teeth begin to erupt, the pressure caused by intense and continual thumbsucking can pose a serious threat to the teeth, jawbone, and roof of the mouth. Possible side effects include malocclusions (misalignment of the teeth), speech impediments, disease, and shaming.
One of the most serious long-term effects of thumbsucking is malocclusion, or tooth misalignment. This can include open bite, which occurs when the bottom and top front teeth do not come together when the mouth is closed, and overbite, which is when the upper front teeth overlap with the lower front teeth. Both open bite and overbite can alter the shape of the face and smile and, in many cases, require years of orthodontic correction.
Thumbsucking can negatively impact speech in several ways. Constant thumbsucking results in less time spent learning and practicing language, which can impede the development of oral motor skills needed for speech. Thumbsucking can also change the shape of the tongue and hinder the development of the jaw bone, which can cause a lisp, interfere with sound production, or lead to other speech disorders.
Our hands are covered in germs at any given time. If a child is sucking his thumb, he is putting all the germs that are on his hands directly into his mouth. This could lead a child to get sick more often. The germs and moisture in the mouth can also cause the skin on the thumb to crack or bleed, opening up skin and making it more susceptible to infections.
Aside from long-term damage to the mouth and teeth, thumbsucking can also have social ramifications for a child. Older children who suck their thumbs in public may be teased by their peers, especially once they start attending elementary school. This sort of teasing can impact a child’s social acceptance and psychological development.
How To Prevent Thumbsucking
If your child isn’t breaking her thumb-sucking habit on her own, it might be time to intervene. Be sure to include your child in the process. Explain to your child why it’s a good idea to quit thumbsucking. Your child is more likely to be successful if she is involved in the plan and willing to quit sucking her thumb. There are several some strategies and tips that can help your child overcome the habit.
Find the Trigger
Children suck their thumbs for many different reasons. It could be because they are tired, anxious, hungry, or just bored. Pay attention to the time of day and environmental stressors that lead to your child sucking his thumb. Identifying the factors that trigger the behavior can help you determine the best way to address it.
Create a Reward System
Just as with adults, children respond better to positive reinforcement. Working with your child to set attainable goals can help her feel as though she has some control in the process and may result in a sense of accomplishment when milestones are met. Some attainable goals that might help break the habit cycle might include abstaining from thumbsucking while watching TV or limiting thumbsucking to just before bed. Whatever the goal, it’s important to track your child’s progress visually, perhaps using a sticker chart or calendar. Provide small rewards when your child reaches certain goals or benchmarks.
Offer Praise and Reminders
Rather than teasing or nagging your child, offer gentle reminders when you notice she has her thumb in her mouth. Criticism or anger could make the problem worse by creating more stress and anxiety for the child, which might be a trigger for the behavior in the first place.
Keep your Child Busy
Distraction is a great tactic for anyone trying to break a habit. Engage your child in hands-on activities that will keep their little hands busy. They’re less likely to suck their thumb if they’re hands are occupied! Drawing or coloring, playing catch, or doing a puzzle are all great distractions for your little one.
Consider Thumbsucking Guards
Thumbsucking guards are soft devices that can be worn over the thumb or in the mouth to physically stop a child from putting his thumb in his mouth. There are several types of plastic and fabric guards you can purchase to help your child curb her habit. The idea is to change the sensory stimulation of the behavior so that it is no longer rewarding. A simple, homemade way to achieve this is to simply wrap a bandage around the thumb.
Talk to a Professional
When in doubt, talk to a pediatric orthodontist or dentist. They can help you determine the best course of action for curbing your child’s thumbsucking habit. In some cases your dentist may suggest an orthodontic appliance that prevents thumbsucking, such as a tongue crib. If nothing else, they can help you and your child better understand why it’s so important to quit thumbsucking.
Treating Damage Caused by Thumbsucking
Unfortunately, if thumbsucking persists long after permanent teeth have erupted, your child will likely need some sort of corrective treatment. X-rays and an examination of your child’s mouth will help your orthodontist determine the best treatment plan. Many times, braces are recommended to correct misalignments and any jaw problems. In some cases, children may need early orthodontic treatment using functional appliances such as expanders.
Thumbsucking is a perfectly natural, self-soothing behavior that many infants and toddlers engage in. For most, it’s a harmless habit that will they will quit on their own as more age-appropriate coping strategies take its place. However, for those who continue to suck their thumbs after their permanent teeth have erupted, it’s important to take steps to curb the behavior so as to not cause long-term damage to the teeth or jaw.