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Thumb Sucking

Sucking is a natural reflex that relaxes and comforts babies and toddlers. Children usually stop thumb sucking between the ages of two and four years when their permanent teeth are ready to erupt. If they continue to suck their thumbs beyond this point, the mouth can grow improperly and the teeth can become misaligned.

If you notice prolonged and vigorous thumb sucking behavior in your child, talk to Dr. Tozer.

Here are some ways to help children outgrow thumb sucking:

  • Praise them when they stop sucking their thumbs instead of scolding them when they do.
  • Focus on eliminating the anxiety-thumb sucking comforts children to help them cope with stress or discomfort.
  • Praise them when they refrain from the habit during difficult periods.

Does your child suck his or her thumb?

For a child to suck his or her thumb is so natural that it has been documented as a regular activity while still in the womb. This behavior only becomes a problem occurs when the child continues to suck the thumb - or finger(s) - until the permanent front teeth start to erupt into the mouth. At that time the teeth are trying to come into positions where they will remain throughout the child's life. Hopefully, these positions will be such that they will match up with teeth in the other jaw in a way that they chew effectively and harmlessly. Usually this also results in an attractive display of the teeth.

The problem develops when an object (generally the thumb, but it could be one or more fingers, the tongue, lip(s) or something else) is placed in the mouth or between the lips so much that it changes the way the lips seal and hold the teeth inward. Typically, the teeth remain in what is known as an equilibrium with the lips and cheeks holding them in from the outside and the tongue pushing outward. Any change in that equilibrium and the positions of the teeth will become affected. For example, when a patient has difficulty breathing through the nose, the lips are forced open to allow breathing through the mouth, and the front teeth move outward, often creating a gap between upper and lower teeth.

It is natural to be concerned about the changes in the positions of the teeth, and often times a negative situation develops over stopping the habit. Again, it should be borne in mind that this behavior is not abnormal. Studies have shown that 97% of newborns have "nonnutritive sucking habits" (sucking a digit or pacifier). The incidence falls to about 80% by age 5-6 and 3% by age 12.

As with nail biting habits, persistent thumb and finger habits can typically be attributed to anxiety, stress, loneliness, imitation of a family member and even heredity. Treatment should include positive reinforcement directed at the cause, not punishment, ridicule nagging or threats. Work with the child to let them know that there is a time to leave this habit behind, and that it can create problems in terms of alignment of the teeth. The key to success is empathy, consent and cooperation.

If the problem persists, and a malocclusion (bad bite) does develop, interceptive orthodontic therapy is not usually very difficult and can provide dramatic improvement.

Thumb sucking teeth picture 1
Thumb sucking teeth picture 1