At first, it’s adorable. Your new baby comes home for the first time, thumb firmly in mouth. Even as your child grows, you still find it cute the way their thumb jumps immediately to the mouth when delighted, scared, or bored. But as your child continues to grow, you start to worry. Is sucking their thumb bad for their health? What is it doing to their mouth and teeth? Should you put a stop to it?
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If you’ve ever had these thoughts, don’t fret—you’re not the first parent to worry about their child. And you’re definitely not the first to question the value of thumb sucking. The good news is your baby is going to be just fine and so is your toddler. Though aggressive thumb sucking at an older age can potentially cause harm to teeth, jaw growth, and bite alignment, as well as require correction later, most children will give up the habit long before that’s necessary.
So why do children suck their thumbs? What are the positive and negative effects? And is there anything you, as a parent, should be doing about it?
Why Do Babies and Children Suck Their Thumbs?
Babies are born with a natural urge to suck because that’s how they take in nutrients and food. This survival trait often transforms into a comfort technique with babies sucking on their thumbs, or even fingers or pacifiers, to soothe themselves when feeling hungry, afraid, restless, sleepy, or bored.
When your child gets older, thumb sucking may continue to be a habit that was developed as early as in the womb! It’s not a practice a young child just shakes off, especially when it is associated with a calming effect. You may notice your child will suck a thumb when adjusting to new situations, like going to preschool, or when falling asleep at night. The practice is all about comfort and calming any intense emotions your child is feeling.
The Good and the Bad of Thumb Sucking
Until your child’s adult teeth start to come in (usually around age six), there’s a low risk of any lasting problems due to thumb sucking. As previously mentioned, thumb sucking can be a comfort technique your child is using to stay calm in new or unfamiliar situations. When still a small child, there’s nothing wrong with this behaviour.
As your child continues to grow, however, you’ll want to keep an eye on the habit. Most children will outgrow the habit between two and five years old, but if not, pay attention to your child’s technique. If the thumb rests gently in the mouth for very limited time through the day and slightly at night, the chance of causing damage to teeth and jaw growth is low. Only with vigorous sucking and prolonged period of times in older children should you worry about later complications and consider curbing the habit.
When to Wait It Out
If your child is under the age of four—you should do nothing; thumb sucking is a natural part of development. If after age four your child continues to suck their thumb with regularity and intensity, it may be time to consider some home treatments to dissuade the practice. Don’t try too intensely to stop the habit, however, as you’re more likely to create a tense situation.
Remember, thumb sucking at later ages is all about comfort. Work on creating new methods for your preschoolers to use to calm and comfort themselves and they will naturally outgrow the urge. Pay attention to when and why your child is sucking and find alternative ways to deal with the emotions involved.
If the Habit Is Not Going Away, What Should I Do?
If the problem persists, significant negative effects can occur. You should be on the lookout for the following signs:
- Intensity of sucking
- Duration of sucking
- Changes in the bite
- Signs of problems (such as an open bite, shifting in the jaw and asymmetry of the face, narrow upper jaw, prominent upper teeth)
Long-term thumb, finger, or pacifier sucking can cause many problems, including shifting of the lower jaw, crowding in both jaws, or teeth being pushed around, causing an overbite or underbite.
If your child’s sucking habits persist after their adult teeth have started to develop, request a consultation with an orthodontist.
The orthodontist will:
- Assess the severity of the situation
- Start with education and explore what has been done to stop the habit
- Assess the cooperation of the child
- Prescribe and start treatment with a habit-breaking appliance with active components to correct unfavourable changes, if present
- Leave it in for at least six months after stopping the habit
Treatment success is very dependent on the parents and child cooperation.
What If I Don’t Seek Treatment Now and My Child’s Habit Persists?
These problems are easier to treat in younger kids.
- Treatment with an appliance can be more invasive in the future, which could require jaw surgery or removal of adult teeth
- Jaw shift can introduce an abnormal direction of jaw growth leading to facial asymmetry
It’s best to consult an orthodontist sooner, rather than later.