Thumb Sucking, Teeth & Oral Development

Thumb Sucking, Teeth & Oral Development

You may have heard that thumb sucking is a bad habit for your child and you may have found yourself wondering why that is so. We thought we would investigate further to help you navigate this period of your child’s dental development, using some of our trusted sources to set the record straight.

Does Thumb Sucking Damage Teeth?

Firstly, it must be noted that not all thumb sucking results in damage to the teeth or mouth. For example, passively holding the thumb in the mouth doesn’t typically cause damage. However, active thumb sucking with a lot of motion can cause damage to primary (baby) teeth.

Whilst this can correct itself when permanent teeth come through, persistent, vigorous thumb sucking can sometimes cause misalignment issues for your child. As a result, the jaw or the shape and roof of the mouth can be affected.

While no condition comes exclusively from thumb sucking, it’s important to monitor this habit as it can lead to dental issues down the line if the behavior is severe or continues for too long. Oral problems for your child associated with chronic thumb sucking past a healthy age may include:

Among other things, thumb sucking may also expose your child to dirt, bacteria, and viruses.

So, while that gives you a quick answer, the longer explanation deserves some attention. After all, there is a whole body of practitioners championing the acknowledgement and understanding of how the development of the jaw and mouth is affected by issues such as thumb sucking (and even the lack of active chewing in a young child’s diet).

Thumb Sucking and Oral Development

Perhaps the more important question to ask is: what is the connection between Thumb Sucking and Oral Development? This is due to the fact that some of the more dire outcomes associated with Thumb Sucking are speech and swallowing issues, more so than the obvious and commonly referred to issue of ‘crooked teeth.’

How does thumb sucking affect a child’s speech and swallowing?

According to Kids Chatter Speech Pathology, when a child sucks their thumb, “the constant forward and backward movement of the tongue can increase the likelihood of developing a tongue thrust swallow pattern. This can affect their ability to swallow properly, their dentition and their speech sounds.”

They go on to state that:

An interdental lisp is usually the most common problem that we see, which is the tongue pushing out between the front teeth when producing the /s/ or /z/ sounds. The habit of the continuous forward motion of the tongue however, not just affects the /s/ and /z/ sounds, but can also affect other sounds that we produce with our tongue such as /t/, /d/, /n/, /l/, /sh/, /ch/ and /j/.

While speech problems are not something your dentist will be able to help you with, they often work closely with speech therapists and other clinicians who can help you with identifying possible oral dysfunction. And early intervention is most definitely your best line of defense when it comes to a thumb sucking habit!

When To Stop Thumb Sucking?

Just like any other developmental milestone, your child’s ‘right time’ to stop thumb sucking will be completely unique. There’s no hard and fast rule for you to go by, but your best advice would be to do it sooner, rather than later, and as gently as possible. Another measure to go by is how vigorous the action is, which can only be assessed on a case-by-case, common-sense basis.

Should you find that your child reaches age five and still relies on sucking their thumb, it might then be time to consider intervening.

According to a leading oral healthcare brand: “At this age, thumb sucking can start to contribute to oral health concerns like a misaligned bite.”

How To Help Your Child Stop Thumb Sucking

As a parent, you will have likely learnt the hard way that behavioural change is a difficult task to manage.

When it comes to helping your child adjust to life without thumb sucking, the usual approach of positive reinforcement will be your best bet.

Part of the reasoning for this is explained by the fact that stress and shame may contribute to an increase in thumb-sucking behavior, making punishment less attractive.

As anyone who’s ever had a bad habit may realize, thumb sucking can become habitual, and your child may not even realise that they’re doing it. Discouraging them with reminders can be helpful to draw their attention before they engage in the habit.

Steps for Discouraging Thumb Sucking Behaviour

Another leading oral health brand suggests the following steps to help your child avoid sucking their thumb:

Provide calmness and comfort. Many children suck a finger or thumb when they feel anxious. Try to determine any specific causes of anxiety for your child that might prompt thumb sucking, and address them.

Enlist their help. If your child is older, ask him/her to help develop methods to break the habit. For example, older children may only suck a finger or thumb at night. Try putting a sock over the hand or taping two fingers together with athletic tape.

Enlist the dentist. Ask your child’s dentist to support and encourage the child to break a thumb or finger-sucking habit.

Enlist an oral health professional. There are many individuals who specialise in children’s oral health, and consequently, there are many tools and mechanisms that can assist in curbing a habit. A thumb sucking guard, or a dental appliance (in rare cases) may be required to discourage thumb sucking.

At Morrin Dental, we are passionate about helping our patients find the best intervention for their individual and family needs. If you begin to notice changes in your child’s bite and they are known to suck their thumb, it’s important you reach out to a professional for some expert insight.

Contact our friendly reception staff to book an appointment with us and help your child achieve optimal oral development.

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