Long-Term Thumb Sucking Thumbs Down For Kids’ Oral Health

Thumb sucking is a rite of passage for infants worldwide. This natural reflex makes newborns, infants and toddlers feel safe and happy. Alas, by age 5, thumb sucking can become a permanent dental problem for young children.

Dental professionals universally give long-term thumb sucking a thumbs down for the long-term damage it can inflict on children’s oral health. If children continue to thumb suck after permanent teeth come in, the habit can cause problems with both tooth alignment and your child’s bite. The aggressiveness, frequency and duration of thumb sucking will determine whether dental problems will emerge.

As the American Dental Association notes, thumb sucking is usually a harmless child comfort habit during the toddler years (ages 2-4) until it becomes a constant, potentially hazardous issue to kids’ oral health. At this point, parents need to put a sock in their kids’ thumb sucking.

A Comforting Thumb

Thumb sucking, as the Mayo Clinic notes, makes babies feel secure. Some start in the womb. It is a byproduct of babies’ natural rooting and sucking reflexes. Some babies – particularly newborns – may develop a habit of thumb sucking when they need soothing or to go to sleep. Children who carry on thumb sucking beyond preschool often use it as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety.

After children’s permanent teeth come in, vigorous thumb sucking can become a roadblock to healthy development of baby teeth. At this stage, thumb sucking can affect the roof of the mouth (palate) and how teeth line up, potentially requiring children to wear braces later.

Other potential harmful childhood oral habits parents should watch out for include:

  • Tongue Thrusting: This is a popular kids’ habit of sealing the mouth for swallowing by thrusting the top of the tongue forward against the lips. Like thumb sucking, tongue thrusting exerts pressure against the front teeth. This pushes them out of alignment and causes them to protrude, creating an overbite and possibly preventing proper speech development. Parents who notice their child developing symptoms of tongue thrusting should consult a speech pathologist, who can develop a treatment plan that allows children to increase the strength of their chewing muscles and develop a new swallowing pattern.
  • Lip Sucking: When kids repeatedly hold their lower lip beneath their front upper teeth, the harmful result can be an overbite and the same problems created by aggressive thumb sucking and tongue thrusting.

How To Cure An Old In The Tooth Thumb Sucker

Again, most thumb sucking, even after age 4, is harmless. The key is in the technique (yep, there’s even technique to thumb sucking). Kids who suck their teeth passively are less likely to have dental problems than kids who suck aggressively.

Here are several ways parents can help their children curb aggressive thumb sucking:

  • The Thumb Cap. Putting a parental finger or an elastic bandage on a child’s thumb can make thumb sucking an uncomfortable activity quickly. This is a drastic measure recommended only for severe thumb sucking habits.
  • Thumb Distractions. Parents should observe the times and places preschoolers are most likely to suck their thumbs (for example, watching television) and try utilizing substitute activities (playing with a ball, holding their hands together) to distract them.
  • Positive Reinforcement. Offer children praise and sensible rewards when children avoid sucking their thumb. Scolding – which can make children feel insecure – isn’t a very compelling argument to drop the habit.
  • Wait It Out. No child sucks their thumb forever. If parents notice their child’s thumb sucking is becoming less regular and more passive, they will likely grow out of the habit themselves. School peer pressure is often a compelling motivator for kids to stop thumb sucking.

Parents should consult their pediatric dentist or pediatrician for serious thumb sucking issues after the age of 5.

Like all behavior modifications, dropping a thumb-sucking habit doesn’t happen overnight. But with a little steering in the right direction, children can kick their thumb sucking habits.

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