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Thumb Sucking and Oral Health

Suckling is instinctive in babies, as they need it for nursing. Very quickly they pair that behavior with feelings of comfort and contentedness. Soon after, they discover that sucking their thumb or a pacifier provides similar positive feelings when they are stressed or bored.

In the period before a child’s permanent teeth come in, thumb sucking is not a problem. After that time, however, it can start to have a negative impact on their oral health.

How Long-Term Thumb Sucking can be Harmful

The longer a child’s thumb sucking continues, the more likely it is to cause damage. This can include:

  • Narrowing of the palate (the roof of the mouth)
  • Improper alignment of existing teeth
  • Issues with the eruption of new teeth
  • Changes to swallowing and breathing actions
  • Speech development challenges

Other issues, while not as serious, arise as well. For example, vigorous thumb sucking can produce painful sores on the thumbs. Also, thumb sucking can make a child more prone to illnesses as germs from the hands are transferred to the mouth.

Thumb Sucking: How Long is Too Long?

Some children will be ready to give up thumb sucking sooner than others, but in general, it is best to have eliminated the habit (including the use of a pacifier) by around 18 months of age. A good reminder is that if a child is frequently talking with their thumb or a pacifier in their mouth, it’s time to take action since this may affect speech development.

Tips for Saying “So Long!” to the Thumb

Here are some ways you can help your child let go of a thumb sucking habit:

  • As much as possible, resolve any anxieties that may be driving the habit.
  • Encourage other activities when your child seems bored.
  • Explain to them that it is time to eliminate the behavior and praise them when you see them resisting the urge to suck their thumb.
  • Help them develop self-awareness by gently asking, “Did you notice you are sucking your thumb now?”
  • If thumb sucking happens as your child falls asleep, provide alternate soothing such as soft music.
  • Give reminders confidentially, as embarrassment may create more of the anxiety that is driving the habit.
  • Be patient but persistent in addressing the issue.

Thumb sucking is a powerful urge in children, so it will take time to eliminate the behavior. But, the effort you devote to helping your child drop the habit will pay off with fewer oral health issues down the road.

We’re proud to provide pediatric dental services along the Colorado Front Range in Lafayette (303.604.9500), Longmont (303.702.9501), and Thornton (303.452.9502). Contact us to make an appointment or learn more about our practice.