Of all the questions a pediatric dentist may get from worried parents, thumb-sucking takes the cake. Many parents express concern over their children's thumb-sucking habits, including whether it will affect their dental health and if it should be prevented.
Well, you can rest easy: Thumb-sucking is a natural instinct, and babies use it to calm and soothe themselves. Regardless of whether children use their thumbs, fingers or a pacifier, sucking helps them feel secure, and placing objects in their mouths enables infants to explore their environment.
Be on Alert
Normal thumb-sucking or pacifier use won't affect young children. Children usually stop on their own after they turn 2, and thumb-sucking is considered safe until the age of 4. Parents need only worry if the child does not stop thumb-sucking by this age, as it can affect both their permanent and baby teeth. If thumb-sucking is prolonged, your child may develop some of the following dental problems:
Malocclusion -- Thumb-sucking can cause a malocclusion, or the improper alignment of teeth. Dentists often notice crooked teeth or an overbite in consistent thumb-suckers. Luckily, the problem may correct itself if the child stops early.
Palate Development -- The roof of the mouth, or palate, may become malformed as a result of thumb-sucking.
Speech Problems -- Children can develop a lisp, have trouble with pronunciation or end up with a tongue thrust.
There is a link between the intensity and length of thumb-sucking and damage done to the teeth: Children who have an aggressive sucking pattern or suck their thumb well beyond the age that most others quit increase their chances of needing the help of an orthodontist as teenagers.
Quitting the Habit
If your child does not stop sucking his or her thumb, you may need to take measures into your own hands. There are several approaches you can use to get your child to quit thumb-sucking:
Mind Over Matter -- Distractions will keep your child's hands busy. Establish rules and goals to help your child adjust. If you do catch your child "falling off the wagon," don't scold them. Instead, offer gentle reminders and stay positive about their progress.
The Gold Star System -- Keep track of your child's achievements with a calendar, and document how well they're doing with stickers or gold stars.
Wrap It Up -- Try putting a glove or sock over your child's hand before they go to bed. You can also wrap the thumb in a bandage or gauze.
Reward Your Child -- A reward system will give your child something to look forward to. And be sure to acknowledge their accomplishments along the way -- quitting thumb-sucking is a big deal! Once your child reaches each goal, reward them how you see fit.
A Sigh of Relief
If your child displays aggressive or long-term thumb-sucking habits, take him or her to a dentist for an evaluation. A dentist can give you a better understanding of how your child's thumb-sucking is affecting his or her dental development, and should be able to predict the need for dental braces or other orthodontic treatments down the line.
Remember, thumb-sucking is perfectly natural, and it helps keep your baby calm and happy. Plus you probably did it yourself, and look how well you turned out! So if your child is a thumb-sucker, be sure to monitor the habit and keep their dental health in perspective. Talking with a dentist can help.