Effects of Thumb-Sucking on Children’s Dental Health

Child sucking on his thumb

Prolonged thumb-sucking, as well as pacifier use, is a common dental issue for kids and can have a negative impact on your child’s smile over time. Most often, babies, toddlers, and small children resort to thumb-sucking or pacifier use as a way to soothe themselves or calm anxiety. While thumb-sucking and pacifier use do have their benefits, they can be detrimental to your child’s dental health if the habit is excessive and continues past the toddler stage.

Why Is Thumb-Sucking Damaging?

Thumb-sucking and pacifier use both have some positive benefits for infants and toddlers. It gives your child a coping mechanism when feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and often starts when a baby is teething. Allowing thumb-sucking or soothing with a pacifier could also mean fewer sleepless nights for already exhausted parents.

Unfortunately, along with the pros comes the cons of pacifier use and chronic thumb-sucking. If thumb-sucking is only a short-term habit, it typically won’t have much of an impact on your child’s smile. However, if your child is four, five, or even older and is still using a pacifier or sucking their thumb, it can negatively affect their teeth, jaw, and other developmental aspects.

Problems with Malocclusion

Excessive thumb-sucking and pacifier use can cause issues with malocclusion, or a misalignment of the upper and lower teeth. The most common malocclusion that develops is known as an open bite. An open bite means that the front upper and bottom teeth do not come into contact with one another, even when the mouth is closed.

Overbites are also common among children who suck their thumbs or use pacifiers past the appropriate age. Overbites mean that the front teeth overlap the bottom teeth in an exaggerated way, causing issues with the way the front teeth are able to function.

Essentially, prolonged thumb-sucking can create gaps and incorrect alignments of the teeth and jaw. This can make it difficult for your child to chew and bite into foods, and even affect speech in some cases, as we’ll discuss later. Dealing with malocclusion issues will also make some children feel self-conscious about their appearance and avoid smiling altogether.

Changes to the Jaw and Facial Development

As a child’s growth and development continue, the jaw and face will make significant changes from infancy to adolescence. Extended use of a pacifier or constantly sucking of the thumb can influence the development of the orofacial complex, which includes the jaw, muscles of the mouth and face, and the teeth. The reoccurring pressure from the excessive sucking motion causes the teeth to shift in an unnatural direction, affecting the child’s overall facial structure.

Having either a thumb or pacifier constantly between the teeth simply doesn’t allow the jaw to position properly. With a severe enough misalignment, the facial muscles have to change the way they work for a child to effectively bite, chew, or speak. This can have consequences that affect a child’s facial structure and appearance, and even lead to an orofacial myological disorder (OMD) that will require extensive treatment.

Effects On Speech Development

Chronic thumb-sucking and pacifier use can even affect your child’s speech. This is often due to the open bite or overbite that develops as a result of this prolonged habit. The tongue will also have a tendency to push forward through the teeth with children who habitually suck their thumbs. Severe malocclusions and poor tongue control can result in a lisp or difficulties with S, Z, L, and R sounds, in particular.

Additionally, it’s so important for babies to babble and practice different sounds by shaping their mouths and exercising facial muscles. Infants and toddlers who excessively suck their thumbs or rely on a pacifier are missing out on vital opportunities to develop and practice these formative language skills. Although this is not an issue directly related to the teeth, it’s worth mentioning when talking about speech development and thumb-sucking.

How Your Dentist Can Help With These Problems

When you bring your children in for regular checkups, the dentist will examine their teeth to check for signs of cavities and other dental issues. This exam will include an x-ray of the teeth and a thorough check of any orthodontic problems, such as an overbite or open bite.

Once your child reaches an appropriate age, there are several orthodontic treatments that will correct even the most serious malocclusion. Metal braces, ceramic braces, and invisible braces, such as Invisalign, can correct alignment issues successfully over time. Which option is best depends on each orthodontic patient and their unique situation. Your orthodontist should be able to discuss the benefits of each treatment with you and your child.

Tips to Help Your Child Break the Thumb-Sucking Habit

Thumb-sucking and pacifier use is simply a habit that your child has developed. It’s a common problem that many children face and parents struggle with as their children grow older. Getting your kid to stop is similar to breaking any other bad habit, and requires persistence and careful monitoring. Here are some tips that might help:

Try to limit the times your children are allowed to suck their thumbs or use pacifiers. It can be a simple restriction of only when in his crib or when sitting in her favorite chair. By carefully enforcing these limits, you could help wean your child off the habit.
Offer a substitute when your child is anxious. This might be a soft blanket or a plush toy they can hold and cuddle to calm themselves down.
Help your child become more self-aware. A lot of times, children don’t even notice when they’re sucking their thumbs. By mentioning it to them, they’ll slowly become more aware of the times they do it.
Praise your child for making progress. If you notice your child is not sucking his thumb when he usually would, let him know what a good job he’s doing!

To Summarize

Unfortunately, excessive thumb-sucking and pacifier use can be detrimental to your child’s dental health and overall development in several ways, including:

● Problems with malocclusion and misalignments
● Changes to the jaw and facial structure
● Difficulties biting and chewing
● Hindering speech development and language skills

The sooner you help your child kick the habit, the better off their dental health and smile will be. However, your dentist is ready to help with orthodontic treatments that will fix the alignment and spacing issues your child may be facing as a result of excessive thumb-sucking or other pediatric dental issues, such as mesiodens. Contact your pediatric dentist for an appointment if you’re worried that your child’s thumb-sucking or pacifier use has negatively impacted their teeth.

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About the Author

Dr. Scott Futch

Dr. Scott F. Futch, DDS

Dr. Scott Futch has been a clinical director for Absolute Dental since April 2017. Dr. Futch graduated from University of Michigan School of Dentistry and completed his training at the Dawson Academy; a postgraduate multi-disciplinary education clinical research facility dedicated to the advancement of dentistry. Dr. Futch has had over 25 years of experience as a skilled clinician, mentor and coach.

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