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Dental Tips
Williamsburg Dentist
Sep 20, 2023

What You Should Know About Thumb Sucking and Your Child’s Teeth

What You Should Know About Thumb Sucking and Your Child’s Teeth

If you’re the parent of a thumb-sucker, you might be worried about how your little one’s habit will impact his or her teeth. Perhaps you’ve heard that thumb-sucking can harm your child’s oral health and development down the road.  While there are some risks to watch out for, there’s no need to panic right away. Let’s take a look at why thumb-sucking is so common, when to intervene, and how to promote teeth-healthy habits with your kids.

Why do children suck their thumbs?

Thumb-sucking is a natural human instinct. Some infants begin sucking their thumbs before they’re even born. For many children, thumb-sucking is soothing, like a soft blanket or a cuddly toy. It can be a useful habit for young children as it helps them self-regulate in stressful or uncomfortable situations. Thumb-sucking also helps some kids fall asleep on their own.  

How does thumb-sucking affect oral health?

While it’s perfectly normal and healthy in young children, thumb-sucking can result in numerous issues with permanent teeth, including:

  • Crooked or jagged teeth
  • Vaulted palate
  • Crowding of top or bottom teeth
  • Over- or underbite
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Speech issues, such as a lisp

Vigorous or prolonged thumb-sucking is more likely to cause issues, which often require extensive, expensive dental interventions, like orthodontia or other corrective treatment. Prevention is the best policy when it comes to dental conditions related to thumb-sucking.

Not all the health impacts of thumb-sucking are bad. Interestingly, some research suggests that children who suck their thumbs are less likely to develop allergies later in life. Pediatricians speculate this is because thumb-suckers ingest more bacteria than children who don’t suck their thumbs. On the flip side, however, this thumb-sucking benefit also poses a health risk. The pathogens found on children’s hands can make them sick.

When does thumb-sucking become a problem?

Most dentists and pediatricians agree that thumb-sucking poses no serious risks to baby teeth. The problems start, however, when a child’s permanent teeth begin to come in, at around five to six years of age. Luckily, most children will stop sucking their thumbs all on their own between two and four years old.

If your little one is older than four and still sucking his or her thumb, it may be time to start intervening. At this age, children may also begin to face mocking or teasing from their peers. While peer pressure is a powerful deterrent to thumb-sucking, there are other, healthier ways to help your child transition out of the habit.

How should I encourage my child to stop sucking his or her thumb?  

Helping your child stop thumb-sucking can be challenging. If you’re a parent navigating this transition right now, hang in there! As with so many things, progress often looks like two steps forward and one step backward.  

Here are some strategies you can try to help your little one give up his or her thumb and find other developmentally appropriate ways to self-soothe.

  • Notice and reward progress. When your child chooses to forgo their thumb for a healthy alternative, praise or reward him or her. Positive reinforcement will encourage children o keep it up.
  • Try a thumb shield or palate guard. Covering your child’s thumb with a bandaid or piece of fabric can be a great reminder if he or she absentmindedly returns to the habit. Your dentist can also offer guidance on a removable or permanent palate guard. These make it more difficult or uncomfortable for kiddos to suck their thumbs.
  • Avoid shaming or criticizing. Take a gentle approach and be patient. If your child continues thumb-sucking while sleeping, remember, it’s not a conscious decision. Humiliating your child won’t speed up the process, but it can damage your relationship.
  • Model and teach healthy stress management techniques. If you notice your little one sucking his or her thumb in stressful situations, help them find a healthy alternative. Depending on their age, you can encourage them to voice their feelings with words, use palm presses, take deep breaths, or a hug special toy to manage their emotions.
  • Don’t swap for a pacifier. Parents sometimes prefer pacifiers, since they can be taken away when children outgrow them. If used past age four, pacis or binkies cause many of the same problems as thumb-sucking. So, swapping one for the other is counterproductive.

For children who are old enough, a gentle conversation with their dentist, explaining why sucking their thumb can get in the way of their oral health, is all it takes for them to get on board and give up the habit. If you’reconcerned at all about your child’s health, always let your dentist or pediatrician know. They can provide additional support and provide a recommendation specific to your child’s situation.  

Has your child been to the dentist yet? Go ahead and schedule their first visit. In addition to a healthy diet and regular teeth brushing, a regular hygiene routine is one of the best ways to protect your child’s dental health. We recommend children come for their first dental appointment as young as one year of age. From our pediatric wing to our “Happy Visit,” we go out of our way to make sure your little one has a positive and comfortable experience in our office.

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