Digit Sucking (Thumb Sucking)

 
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For most infants, the sucking of thumbs is a happy, everyday part of life.  Since sucking is a natural, instinctual baby habit, infants derive a sense of comfort, relaxation, and security from using a thumb as a sucking aid.

How can thumb sucking damage children’s teeth?

Thumb sucking damage can be quite insidious.  Both can be difficult to assess with the naked eye, and both tend to occur over a prolonged period of time.  Below is an overview of some of the risks associated with prolonged thumb sucking:

Jaw misalignment – Over time, thumbs can guide the developing jaws out of correct alignment.

Roof narrowing – The structures in the mouth are extremely pliable during childhood.  Prolonged, repeated exposure to thumb sucking actually cause the roof of the mouth to narrow (as if molding around the sucking device).  This can cause later problems with developing teeth.

Slanting teeth – Growing teeth can be caused to slant or protrude by thumb sucking, leading to poor esthetic results.  In addition, thumb sucking use in later childhood increases the need for extensive orthodontic treatments.

Mouth sores – Passive sucking is much less harmful than aggressive sucking.  Aggressive sucking (popping sounds when the child sucks) may cause sores or ulcers to develop.

How can I encourage my child to stop thumb sucking?

In most cases, children naturally relinquish the thumb over time.  As children grow, they develop new ways to self-soothe, relax, and entertain themselves.  When thumb sucking use persists past the age of five, a gentle intervention may be required.

Here are some helpful suggestions to help encourage the child to cease thumb sucking:

  • Ask the pediatric dentist to speak with the child about stopping.  Often, the message is heard more clearly when delivered by a health professional.
  • Buy recommended specialized dental appliance to make it difficult for the child to engage in sucking behaviors.
  • Implement a reward system (not a punishment), whereby the child can earn tokens or points towards a desirable reward for not thumb sucking.
  • Wrap thumbs in soft cloths or mittens at nighttime.

If the above suggestions do not seem to be working, your pediatric dentist can provide more guidance.  Remember: the breaking of a habit takes time, patience, and plenty of encouragement!

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