As parents, worrying is pretty much par for the course. Our kids’ teeth are no exception. We wonder if we’re doing everything we can to ensure a healthy mouth for the rest of their lives.
Thumb sucking is a dental grey area. We know it’s a comfort mechanism for children. But we worry if they’re sucking those collective thumbs too much or too late in their development. Should they have stopped by now? Are they damaging their teeth?
Let’s just say you don’t want your child to be like the Peanuts character Linus, still sucking his thumb well into elementary school. But you don’t have to worry too much — thumb sucking usually passes before children hit preschool age.
Dr. Steier wants to give her patients some information on this universal childhood behavior and how it can affect the teeth.
What Is Normal Thumb Sucking?
Thumb sucking is indeed a comfort behavior for children. When they are stressed or concerned, the thumb is likely to be headed for the mouth. This begins early on. Sometimes during an ultrasound, you can even see a fetus in the womb sucking his or her thumb. Thumb sucking can help a child feel secure and happy, and it can be soothing when there is anxiety such as when the child is separated from his or her parents. Thumb sucking or pacifier use can also help a child fall asleep.
How Long Can It Go On?
Parents wonder about thumb sucking and when it should end. Here, Linus van Pelt is no role model, carrying around his blanket and sucking his thumb well into elementary school. The American Dental Association recommends discouraging thumb sucking by the age of four. By this time, prolonged sucking can begin to affect the proper development of your child’s mouth, jaw, and teeth. Continued thumb sucking can cause the permanent teeth to be misaligned.
If it continues into the five or six-year-old age the pressure from sucking will lead to changes in the mouth and teeth. The ADA says that the front teeth may begin to jut forward and the child’s bite will begin to open, meaning the upper and lower teeth won’t be able to touch. As the permanent teeth descend, they will start to become misaligned.
So, How Do I Break the Habit?
There is a tendency in some parents to draw the line on thumb sucking, “You have to stop today.” But this is usually counterproductive. In most cases, kids just stop sucking their thumb one day, especially if you ignore the behavior. Kids usually start to understand that there is a point where sucking their thumb isn’t cool in certain social situations or when they compare to other kids.
Still, if it endures, try these tricks:
- Offer a pacifier to infants. They are easier to take away, obviously.
- Establish a chart and reward system, plotting progress on quitting.
- Encourage and praise all attempts to stop thumb sucking in your child.