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The Effects Thumb-Sucking Has On Your Child’s Teeth

Thumb sucking is a common source of comfort to make your child feel secure and happy. Since it can be soothing, many little ones turn to this habit as a coping mechanism to deal with stressful situations or to calm down before bedtime. In the majority of scenarios, your child will outgrow the habit on their own. However, in some cases, it can continue to a point where it becomes detrimental to their oral health.

Types of thumb sucking

It may be surprising to think that there are different types of thumb sucking. The difference can determine whether or not damage can occur. Passively holding the thumb in the mouth is typically no cause for concern. However, actively sucking the thumb with a lot of motion can cause damage to baby teeth. A step further of actively and consistently sucking the thumb with a lot of vigorous motion can lead to damage to the roots of the teeth, potentially causing misalignment of the permanent teeth.

How long it should last

Most will outgrow the behavior on their own between the ages of two to four. According to the American Dental Association, it is best to start discouraging thumb sucking around age four. By this age, the prolonged nature of intense thumb sucking can begin to take a negative toll on teeth. It is rare to see the habit in older children beyond kindergarten. If this occurs, you may need to take steps to break the habit before it becomes detrimental.


In the short term, thumb sucking can expose your child to extra germs from contact with dirt, bacteria, and viruses. The repetitive pressure placed on the teeth, jawbone, and roof of the mouth can, unfortunately, lead to some negative long term effects as well.

An overbite is one of the potential concerns, where the front teeth protrude out from the mouth. Other bite issues can also arise. For example, the bottom and top teeth could not meet when the mouth is closed, or the bottom teeth could lean inwards. In some cases, the actual shape of the jaw can change, which can affect the alignment of the teeth and speech patterns. When speech patterns are affected, a lisp is one of the possible outcomes. Finally, the roof of the mouth sensitivity can also occur.

How to discourage it

Fortunately, in most scenarios, all of these negative impacts can be avoided if the habit is broken prior to the presence of permanent teeth. You can take certain steps to discourage the habit in order to make the transition and prevent any issues. One approach is to talk to your child about the habit, and get his or her input on what method sounds the most helpful and realistic. If your child has an understanding that they are too old for thumb sucking, this could help discourage the habit. This can even be reinforced by hearing it from another source, like a pediatric dentist in Little Rock as well.

Many have found it beneficial to simply ignore the behavior, as your child may figure out on their own through social cues or peer pressure when it is not acceptable. Be sure to use positive reinforcement as much as possible too, which can be done through direct verbal praise for going long periods without thumb sucking or through a sticker chart to track their progress.

You can dig deeper into the underlying cause of the habit by identifying what triggers it. For example, some children may turn to sticking a thumb in the mouth when they are bored, tired, hungry or feeling anxious. To address the boredom trigger, you can increase the number of activities where their hands are in use. Coloring, crafts, puzzles, or ball throwing can provide a positive distraction that allows their hands to stay engaged and thus out of their mouths. If it seems to be triggered by stress, attempt to determine the root of the anxiety so you can help them work through it.

When you have tried these approaches and are still looking for a way to shake the habit, you may need to take a more direct approach of something that will physically discourage them. A glove over the preferred hand or a bandage over the thumb itself can act as a helpful reminder to your child. Thumb shields also exist for this reason, or you can try a removable or non-removable orthodontic device that disrupts the ability completely.

Encourage healthy habits

Talk to your pediatric dentist about a plan to not only break bad habits but to also help instill healthy dental habits in your children. Along with the typical brushing and flossing, you can also provide snacks that improve dental health, like calcium filled string or cottage cheese and fruits rich in Vitamin C like strawberries and apples. Tap water has also proven to be beneficial to your child’s oral hygiene. Not only does it keep a hydrated mouth, but the fluoride can help prevent cavities.

For more information

Take action that benefits your child’s health. For more information, contact Arkansas Family Dental at (501) 683-8886 to speak with a healthcare professional.

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Samaria Mascagni

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