The “Tooth” About Thumb Sucking

Feb 19, 2018

Every person goes through a thumb sucking stage in their lives. It is entirely natural for babies and toddlers to suck their thumbs as a means of coping through stages of anxiety, boredom, trauma, and exploration. Most children naturally stop sucking their thumbs from two to four years of age. Around 30% of preschool children will continue to suck their thumbs after this stage. If this coping mechanism becomes a habit (to the point of continuing through to five or six years old) and their permanent teeth are starting to erupt, this habit can potentially be quite harmful.

The Problems

Long-term thumb sucking can negatively impact the dental progress of your child. The more intense or aggressive your child’s thumb sucking is, the more it will likely damage your child’s development. The most common harmful results of thumb sucking are:

  • An overbite where the upper teeth significantly overlap the lower teeth (the front teeth are abnormally pushed further forward which impacts the shape of the face);
  • An open bite where the upper and lower front teeth don’t meet and there is a gap (putting all the chewing pressure on the back teeth which will wear away the back teeth very quickly);
  • Reshaping the child’s upper jaw from a U to a V shape (as the teeth make room for the thumb);
  • Hindering the development of the palate and the tongue (leading to a lisp where your child may find it difficult to enunciate “s” or “th” sounds); and
  • Possible teasing from peers when reaching preschool and very early school age.

Keep in mind that if your child is merely holding their thumbs or fingers in their mouths instead of aggressively sucking, that will have a lesser impact on their physiological development. Furthermore, remind yourself that your child’s thumb sucking will inevitably end sooner or later – no one goes through life continuing this habit – and your child will develop other coping mechanisms such as language development or distraction as a means of self-soothing. Or else, Braces & Orthodontics can also be the solutions if the shape is getting much changed.

What You Can Do About It

Identify When and Why

Identify when and why your child is sucking their thumb or fingers. Every child is different therefore every child’s reason for sucking their thumb will be different. If your child sucks their thumb as a form of stimulation when they’re bored, show them an alternative to entertain or stimulate themselves such as drawing or chewing on “chewelry” (i.e. jewelry designed for children to chew). If it is used as a means of comfort, encourage bonding with a special toy or cuddle them until they calm down.

Talk to Your Child

What experts always recommend is to talk to your toddler or young child. Explain to them that it isn’t a healthy habit (because of yucky germs), it may impact their teeth so they may look or talk funny, they may need braces when they grow up, and other kids may call them a baby if they keep doing this at school. Your child will eventually voluntarily elect to stop sucking their thumb and you should make sure they understand that when they are ready, you are there to help them.

Limit but Don’t Prohibit

As mentioned previously, thumb sucking is used as a coping mechanism. If your child sucks their thumb when they are in pain, don’t stop them otherwise this will further contribute to the trauma. The key is to help your child actively understand what is going on. So you can practise self-awareness with your child by asking, “Do you know you’re sucking your thumb right now? Are you hurt? Would you like a hug or a kiss?” This provides your child with an alternative as well as a conscious acknowledgement of the habit. Furthermore, you can limit the time or place your child sucks their thumb to the house or their bedroom so they know this is not an appropriate public activity and this will wean their habit.

Encourage and Praise, Not Criticise and Shame

Encouragement and praise are very effective incentives to modify the Children’s Dental Health. People almost always respond far better to positive feedback than negative payment or distraction as a means of self-prohibitions. Positive incentives give a clear directive of the specific ideal behaviour. To criticise and shame will probably promote an antagonistic rapport. If you nag them constantly, that may encourage them to suck their thumb even more. Rather, you can encourage your child by verbally acknowledging them when they are not sucking their thumb and by rewarding them with stickers and treats when they have reached milestones (e.g. a sticker for every day they don’t suck their thumbs and an ice cream if they haven’t done so for a week).

Other Methods

Other methods such as yucky nail polish and gloves or mittens are under hot debate. Some experts strongly advise against it (arguing that it further traumatises the child), while other parents’ own experience concludes, “It worked for my child so it must work.” Our recommendation would be to seek the advice of your dental practitioner. They will be able to advise you of the more conservative measures to take and they will be able to assess the situation thoroughly.