Are Thumb Sucking and Pacifier Habits Harmful to a Child’s Teeth?

One of the questions we get a lot from parents is whether their child’s thumb-sucking habits will one day cause them future dental health problems. Googling “thumb sucking” provides a host of results for devices to help your child stop sucking his or her thumb, or articles warning parents about the long-term dangers. But really, when it comes to whether your child’s thumb sucking will be harmful to his or her teeth, the answer really is “it depends.”

First, let’s talk about what thumb-sucking really is. Thumb-sucking is totally natural habit or behavior for young children to develop; many children actually start sucking their thumbs in the womb. The sucking motion provides comforting sensations to children. Often, you will see a child suck his or her thumb when they are nervous, or separated from their parents. Other times, it’s just a way to feel comforted and secure – sometimes, it can even help your child fall asleep (which is rarely the part we hear parents complaining about!). Finally, in addition to the comforting effect, children may suck on fingers, toes, or other objects to learn more about the world around them.

But what of the consequences for your child’s mouth? Should you be worried? Well, again, “it depends.” Usually between the ages of two and four a child naturally stops sucking his or her thumb. This is good, because it’s about the time permanent teeth begin coming in, and at this point, thumb-sucking can definitely cause issues with proper mouth-growth and the alignment of your child’s teeth. It can even cause negative changes to the roof of his or her mouth. And it’s not just thumb-sucking that can be deleterious over time – pacifiers can affect the mouth in the same ways as a thumb or finger. The other factor parents should consider before worrying is the intensity of sucking. If your child rests his or her thumb passively in their mouth, they are less likely to cause damage than active thumb-suckers. The way you can tell is if there’s a popping sound when you try to remove your child’s thumb from his or her mouth. Popping usually means your child is actively sucking on the thumb.

If you’re concerned about your child’s long-term thumb sucking habits, you have many options. As children tend to suck on their thumbs when upset, scolding rarely helps – but praising your child for not sucking his or her thumb can help! Similarly, if your child is an anxious thumb-sucker finding and removing the source of concern can help.

So, parents, remember that only long-term thumb-sucking and pacifier use become a problem for children’s dental health. While most cease thumb-sucking and pacifier habits on their own, if your child is still sucking his or her thumbs past their third birthday, a dental appliance may be a good idea. Consult your pediatric dentist for details! And as Dr. Cobb always says: good oral hygiene habits, combined with healthy food choices and bi-annual checkups are the best way to prevent tooth decay.

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