thumb suckingOne of the challenging things about parenting is that children often don’t or can’t tell their parents when they have a physical problem. This is true with sickness, and it’s also true with dental problems. A baby might cry if he’s in pain, but he won’t tell you that he has advanced tooth decay or that his teeth aren’t growing in right because he’s sucking his thumb. Believe it or not, thumbsucking does cause dental problems in some children.

Thumbsucking: the Uncomfortable Truth about This Comforting Habit

Most babies are comforted by suckling, whether that’s breast or bottle feeding, a pacifier, or their thumb. Suckling makes them feel secure and content and will often make them easier to put down for a nap or at bedtime. That’s why parents are quick to use a pacifier and happy enough to see them sucking their thumbs.

Before a child’s baby teeth come in, there’s no real harm from thumbsucking. However, when they do get teeth, the pressure from their thumbs or from a pacifier can cause tooth misalignment and even changes in the roof of their mouths. If they are not sucking too hard, but only holding a pacifier or their thumb gently in their mouth, the habit isn’t too destructive. Aggressive thumbsuckers are the ones who are most likely to see dental problems later. 

How Long Do Children Suck Their Thumbs? 

The good news is that most children do naturally grow out of a thumbsucking habit. Typically it’s between the ages of two and four years old, well before their permanent teeth erupt. A handy way of remembering the typical teething schedule is that kids get their first teeth beginning around 6 months and their first adult teeth beginning around 6 years of age. It varies, of course, from child to child, and there is a range of normal oral development. 

If your child sucks his thumb, there are ways to help him break the habit. The first is to remove any stressors that may trigger him to want to suck his thumb out of comfort. Removing the source of anxiety will help limit the behavior. 

Talk to your child and encourage him to stop sucking his thumb. If you notice that he does stop, praise this behavior. If he’s old enough to respond to incentives, you can involve him in choosing the method of stopping and a reward for succeeding. You can also have your dentist talk to him about the reasons thumbsucking is bad for his teeth. 

If your child has difficulty stopping, you can put a bandage on his thumb as a reminder. Your dentist or doctor may also prescribe something to coat the thumb and make it taste bitter without causing any health issues. Breaking a pacifier habit is often much easier than breaking a thumbsucking habit. A parent can take away a pacifier, but thumbs are attached and always ready to use.

If you are pregnant or have a young child, you should be as proactive as you can with their teeth. Begin brushing your child’s teeth as soon as their teeth erupt using a soft bristle toothbrush and a small dab of toothpaste. Schedule a dental checkup with your dentist within six months of the appearance of teeth. Your dentist can give you guidance and answer any questions you have about your child’s teeth and tooth formation.

If you notice changes in your child’s primary teeth for any reason or are concerned about your child’s thumbsucking, consult your dentist.