By Christina Cook, RDH, ECP II, Dental Department, Health Partnership Clinic
While thumb sucking is undeniably adorable the first couple of years, as kindergarten approaches and those front teeth start bucking out, parents can easily start to panic!
Thumb sucking typically emerges in infancy, but the habit may start even earlier. Many babies have had the habit for multiple months before birth and it has been described as the earliest addiction. The habit of thumb sucking in children up to age four is a normal and an innocent reflex. Please beware though! Thumb sucking after the age of four could be a sign of insecurity and discomfort in children and many times becomes more than a habit but a dependency. Like any habit the longer the behavior persists the more difficult it becomes to break. Beyond the psychological dependency there are other possible long-term effects.
Possible Thumb Sucking Complications
- Changes to the position of the teeth. The constant pressure causes the teeth to shift around the shape of the thumb. This is called an open bite and makes it difficult to properly bite into and eat the foods we love.
- Constant pressure of the thumb against the roof of the mouth can contribute to a high narrow arched roof of the mouth.
- Thumb sucking anchors the tongue down and forward instead of allowing the tongue to rest in the proper position.
- Contributes to abnormal tongue patterns.
- Alters normal breathing patterns and normal facial growth patterns.
- Contributes to an open mouth resting position of the lips.
Most dental pros recommend not intervening to stop a thumb sucking habit until age four or five. The good news is most kids will quit on their own by that time but if the habit persists here are some tips.
Tips for Quitting
- Praise and reward your child! Star charts, daily rewards and gentle reminders.
- If your child uses sucking to relieve boredom, keep the hands busy or distract them with things they find fun.
- No matter what method you try, be sure to explain it to your child. If it makes your child afraid or tense, you should stop it at once because this could have an opposite effect on your child’s progress.
- Consider trying Mavala Sto, a nail polish with a bitter taste that helps keep the thumb out of the mouth.
- Books about thumb sucking are a great way to “plant the seed” about quitting, without pressuring the child.
Sometimes these solutions work, and sometimes the child still needs a little extra time or help. If you see changes in the roof of your child’s mouth or in the way the teeth are lining up, talk with your pediatrician or pediatric dentist for additional help with breaking the habit.