Approximately three-quarters of all infants suck their thumbs. Nevertheless, parents often worry when they observe the behavior in babies. Parents often question whether allowing a child to suck his or her thumb at night will cause irreparable damage to the child’s teeth. The following guide will help parents receive answers to the most common questions we receive about thumb-sucking and tooth development.
Is There Anything Wrong With Thumb-Sucking?
Parents are often surprised when ultrasound images depict their unborn child sucking his or her thumb. Suckling is a natural comfort mechanism babies experience in relation to their urge to nurse. Thumb-sucking helps many children relax if they feel anxious or are away from their parents. While most health professionals agree thumb-sucking is a safe self-soothing practice in infants and very young children. However, the habit can cause problems if a child continues to aggressively suck his or her thumb when the adult teeth begin to come in.
When Should a Parent Discourage Thumb-Sucking?
Many young children use thumb-sucking as a means of beginning to develop independence. In most cases, children stop sucking their thumbs on their own. For some children, the social stigma that is often attached to thumb-sucking beyond a certain age causes the child to stop. Other children find other more acceptable ways to self-soothe. Generally, it is time to discourage thumb-sucking if a child has reached age five and still aggressively sucks his or her thumb.
How Can Parents Curb Thumb-Sucking?
Positive reinforcement is the best approach to discouraging children from sucking their thumbs. Parents of younger children can discourage thumb-sucking by giving the child a pacifier, which will cause less damage over time. Parents may also use a reward system in which the child receives a fun reward for each day the child goes without thumb-sucking. In the beginning, parents may find it more effective to restrict thumb-sucking at certain times, such as prohibiting the child from sucking his or her thumb before bed. Visual rewards are often effective in helping children form healthy habits or break bad habits. Creating a visual chart and tracking the days a child dues not suck his or her thumb may further discourage the behavior by providing a positive reward. It is also critical that parents remember that anxiety and uneasiness are the underlying emotions that trigger thumb-sucking. Therefore, parents should eliminate potential stressors in the home that may cause the child to feel anxious and need to self-soothe.
What Problems Can Prolonged Thumb-Sucking Cause?
Several problems can arise if a child continues to suck his or her thumb after the adult teeth begin to come in. These problems can often sort themselves out; however, orthodontic treatment is sometimes necessary. When the adult teeth begin to grow in, thumb-sucking can push the teeth outward and form an overbite. More severe overbite cases can cause breathing problems, inability to sue, and damage to the other teeth. Thumb-sucking may also cause an open bite to develop, in which case the front teeth do not touch at all. Broken teeth, worn molars, lisp, and speech impediment may occur as a result of an open bite. Thumb-sucking can cause other tooth alignment issues, including crowding and tooth gaps. Constant pressure on the palate or roof of the child’s mouth can cause the palate to collapse or result in a crossbite. A collapsed palate may lead to sleep apnea. A crossbite may give a child’s facial structure a sunken appearance.