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Thumb sucking is an extremely common habit in infants. It is actually considered beneficial to the child up until a certain age after which it can start to seriously affect the development of the teeth and the facial skeleton. We have the details.

Why do children suck their thumbs?

Babies are born with a natural "rooting and sucking" instinct, which basically means that they have a natural need to suck on something. This habit of thumb sucking can even be visible within the womb. Babies get a sense of comfort and security from sucking their thumbs or pacifiers. It helps them calm down, cope with anxiety, stress, restlessness, feeling scared, or even when they are unable to sleep.

This is why thumb sucking in infants up until the age of around three is considered perfectly normal and even beneficial to the babies.

Can thumb sucking or the use of pacifiers affect the child’s teeth?

The answer to this question depends on a couple of factors. The first is the age until which the thumb sucking or the use of pacifier exists, and the other is the intensity with which the child is sucking the thumb.

The permanent teeth start to erupt around the age of five to six years of age, and parents don’t have much to worry about if the thumb sucking habit stopped before that age. In general, though, pediatricians or pediatric dentists advise that the thumb sucking habit should begin to be "kicked" around the age of three years.

The intensity and duration of thumb sucking is an important consideration when it comes to the effects thumb sucking has. If the child is just passively keeping the thumb in the mouth then the damage done is not extensive, and the habit is also easier to break. On the other hand, if the child vigorously sucks their thumb for a prolonged period of time, then irreversible damage can be done to the development of the teeth as well as the structure of the face.

What damage is caused to the teeth by thumb sucking?

  • The first and most noticeable change that comes from the thumb sucking habit is the development of an "open bite". The upper front and lower teeth will be flared outward and will not meet each other when the child closes the mouth.
  • The other big change that happens is a change in the shape of the developing palate. The normal shape of the palate is almost semi-circular but it can become very sharp, almost pointed, after a prolonged period of thumb sucking. This collapse in the shape of the palate is visible in the development of the facial skeleton and compromises the normal eruption of the teeth as well.

Is the use of a pacifier better than thumb sucking?

While the prolonged use of either is not a good option, a pacifier is definitely the lesser of the two evils. It is much easier to break the habit of using a pacifier than it is to stop the thumb sucking habit. The emotional component of the habit is much weaker with the use of a pacifier. Also, it is physically much more difficult to apply the same amount of force on the palate with a pacifier than with the thumb. This makes a physical deformation of the palate much more difficult with the use of a pacifier.

Parents should, however, remember that the occurrence of middle-ear infections is more common with the use of pacifiers, particularly, as the child grows older than three years of age.

How can the thumb sucking habit be broken?

It is advisable to talk to the pediatrician or a pediatric dentist while attempting to stop the thumb sucking habit so that a clear idea of the problem can be understood.

There are some simple techniques which can be followed like positive reinforcement, use of a finger cover or a band-aid, or dental appliances to physically prevent the child from thumb sucking.

Thumb sucking is an emotional response to stress and so shouting or berating the child is not recommended. Instead, ignore the child when you notice thumb-sucking and instead praise the child when a portion of time without the habit is seen. 

This praise or other rewards can gradually be given at increasing intervals to help break the habit. A band-aid or a finger cover is a good option but it should not be forced upon the child. This is why older children, who want to stop the habit and understand the effort being undertaken, are good candidates for this method.

In severe cases, the use of a dental appliance called a crib can help physically prevent the thumb sucking habit. This is the last measure and is used only after all other methods have failed to work.

Conclusion

Thumb sucking and the use of a pacifier can be perfectly normal during infancy and is a self-limiting habit in most cases. It is, however, important that parents be aware of the potentially harmful effects of long-term thumb sucking and take preventive methods if the habit persists beyond three years of age.

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