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Thumb Sucking: How It Affects Kids’ Teeth

Thumb sucking is a common childhood habit that usually starts in infancy. Pediatricians estimate that about 75% of newborn infants suck their thumbs, and some continue thumb sucking into childhood.
In the US, the majority of children who stuck their thumbs will stop on their own, without any intervention, between the ages of 2 and 4. 30% of children still suck their thumb at 1 year, but that number drops to 12% by age 4.
Prolonged thumb sucking can affect kids’ teeth, causing a number of dental problems, including misaligned teeth, problematic growth of the palate, speech impediments, and the need for extensive orthodontic work.

What Are the Dental Implications of Thumb Sucking?

In infancy, thumb sucking is a health mechanism for self-soothing. But when children get older and begin to lose their teeth (around 5 or 6 years old), continued thumb sucking can cause serious dental problems.

A mother carrying a thumb sucking child.

How Can I Stop My Child’s Thumb Sucking?

We hear this question a lot at our dental practice! We hear it from a few different groups of parents:

To stop your child from thumb sucking, we recommend the following strategies.

Pay attention to the triggers that prompt your child to suck their thumb

Does your child suck their thumb when they are sleepy? Hungry? Nervous? Bored?
Often, if you can pinpoint the trigger that is causing your child to start thumb sucking, you can circumvent the thumb sucking by addressing that trigger!
For example, if your child sucks their thumb because they are anxious or nervous, addressing the source of their anxiety can help to reduce their thumb sucking behaviors.
If they are thumb sucking out of boredom, you can be prepared with fidget toys and activities nearby to help keep their hands and minds busy.
The more you know about your child’s triggers, the more effectively you can anticipate them!

Distractions, distractions, distractions

One of the best strategies for breaking the thumb sucking habit is distraction.
When you notice your child sucking their thumb, distract them by giving them something else to do. Coloring, painting, sensory play, playing with an age-appropriate fidget toy, or using a busy board are just a few of your options.

Use positive reinforcement and rewards

Positive reinforcement is far more likely to help you change your child’s behavior than punishments. Punishing a child for habitual behaviors like thumb sucking will make them feel ashamed without actually helping them to stop!
Here are some positive reinforcement ideas:

Gentle reminders

Don’t yell, shame, or criticize your child for sucking their thumb. Remember, it gives them a positive sensory experience, and you are asking them to stop something that gives them comfort!
Instead, offer consistent praise and gentle reminders to stop sucking their thumb. You will need to do this a lot of times, so try not to get frustrated with how many times you need to repeat yourself. You may also set parameters like not sucking outside the house, and make a big deal when they actually follow through with the rules.
For more extreme cases, your pediatrician or pediatric dentist may be able to provide you with orthodontic/orthopedic intervention to address the root cause for thumbsucking, which may stem from attempts to transition their autonomic nervous system, a low lying tongue, and/or a tongue tie.
Gentle strategies for play and desensitization of the nervous system as well as retained primitive reflex training and oral neuro myofunctional exercises will help your child transition into a more desirable autonomic nervous state, and a more rest and digest state, rather than flight or fight.
A young girl sucking her thumb

When Do I Need to Address My Child’s Thumb Sucking?

Importantly, thumb sucking is completely normal under the age of two. In fact, thumb sucking is beneficial to babies and toddlers because it reduces fussiness and helps them to self-soothe.
Between the ages of two and five, thumb sucking may not have much of a permanent negative impact, as children have not yet lost their baby teeth. However, once they begin losing their baby teeth, the behavior can become problematic.
Even so, you shouldn’t wait until your child’s adult teeth start coming in before you address problematic thumb sucking. Ideally, you will address the habit before it ever causes any problems.

Will my child’s teeth go back to normal when they stop sucking their thumb?

We’ve got some good news! Often, when your child stops sucking their thumb, their teeth will naturally start to shift back to their normal position! This may take several weeks or months.
If your child’s teeth don’t go back to the correct position within a few months, there are always ways to address long-lasting problems, including braces, bite aligners, and other orthodontic and dental devices.

How Your Pediatric Dentist Can Help

Pediatric dentists are a great resource for addressing problematic thumb sucking behavior.
At Ashburn Children’s Dentistry, we work with our patients to address bad oral health habits and replace them with healthy ones. This absolutely includes thumb sucking!
Some of the things we do for our patients include:

Ashburn Children’s Dentistry – Ashburn, Virginia

Our dentists Dr. Krystle Dean-Duru and Dr. Lynda Dean-Duru are happy to answer your questions about thumb sucking and how it affects kids’ teeth.
Schedule your child’s appointment with Ashburn Children’s Dentistry today to set them on a path to a healthy, beautiful smile for life. Contact us today to schedule an appointment for your child.

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